Smoking Beyond You: The Environmental Impact of Cigarettes
Recently, I started thinking about all the negative impacts smoking has on our society. I decided to do a little research and go beyond those things that affect us on a personal level, such as our health and budget, and look at the environmental toll of smoking tobacco.
Cigarettes have many negative effects that go beyond the individual. There are three main ways in which cigarettes hurt the natural world.
Sources of tobacco's harmful environmental impact
- Tobacco cultivation involves farming practices which harm the land. Tobacco crops also take up farmland that could be used to produce edible crops instead.
- Smoking pollutes the air, just like driving a car.
- Cigarette waste is a huge source of litter and contributes to plastic waste. Cigarette butts are also full of toxins, which harm wildlife and pollute water.
Let’s start at the very beginning of a cigarette's life. As soon as tobacco is chosen as a crop, its negative impacts on the environment begin.
Tobacco crops are a waste of space.
A 2008 article on NBC states that there are more than 350,000 acres of US farmland being used to raise tobacco. It’s hard to blame the farmers when tobacco is almost 10 times as profitable as corn. It is estimated that about 14,826,322 acres of land are being used worldwide for growing tobacco. If that amount of farmland was used to grow edible crops, it could feed around 20 million people.
Farming practices can cause soil degradation.
Beyond wasting land that could be used for healthy food crops, there are negative environmental factors that go into growing tobacco. The farming practices used for raising tobacco tend to cause deforestation and soil degradation, and the agrochemicals used to help the growing process are known to contaminate the surrounding area.
Curing tobacco can also have negative impacts.
Once the tobacco leaves are harvested, they need to be dried out or cured. There are a few main methods of curing tobacco, one of which is flue-curing. This process requires an externally fed fire box to run for about a week. This particular process contributes to deforestation and releases a lot of CO2 into the air, both of which contribute to global warming.
Cigarettes Pollute the Air
Smoking 3 cigarettes releases 10 times as many air pollutants as running a diesel car’s exhaust for the same amount of time, according to a study by Italy’s National Cancer Institute.
Cigarettes Are the World's #1 Source of Litter
What happens with all those cigarettes once they've been smoked?
In 2001, the Cigarette Litter Organization estimated that about 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered worldwide every year. To compound this problem, cigarette butts are designed to be filters and thus accumulate toxins. 50 of those toxins are known carcinogens, but that number is nothing compared to the 4,000 chemicals that can be found in a single cigarette. These toxins can leach into water and poison animals and aquatic life.
Cigarette butts harm animals and pollute water.
According to a report from Smokefree Oregon, tumors in turtles have been linked to cigarette-butt pollution in Hawaii. Turtles are just one species that can help highlight how cigarette butts negatively affect animals; the UN International Maritime Organization estimated that as of the year 2003, 177 species of marine animals and 111 species of shorebirds were being harmed because of tobacco litter.
The EPA’s aquatic bioassay studies conclude that it only takes 1 cigarette butt to make 2 liters of water acutely toxic to water fleas. Fleas might not be a species that inspires people to take action, but they are used to help determine acute toxicity of chemicals for aquatic vertebrates—including dolphins, whales, and all those adorable animals people want to protect.
According to the UN International Maritime Organization, 177 species of marine animals and 111 species of shorebirds are affected by tobacco litter causing unnecessary malnutrition, starvation, and death.— California Coastal Commission 2003, UN International Maritime Organization 2003
We don't need more sources of plastic waste.
It’s also important to remember that cigarette filters are made from plastic. That's right, plastic, as in that material we are constantly trying to keep out of the oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made of a lot more than straws and plastic bags. Biologists and wildlife rehabilitators are constantly finding cigarette butts in the intestines and stomachs of larger animals.
Cigarette butts do not biodegrade.
Cigarette butts are the most common litter item, and, contrary to popular belief, they do not break down very quickly under natural conditions. Their plastic filters are not biodegradable at all, and how fast the rest of a cigarette breaks down is up for debate. The filter manufacturers say it takes 1 to 12 months depending on environmental conditions. Other research organizations have shown it takes 1 to 3 years. Still others claim it takes up to 15 years.
Which one is correct? I have no idea, but based on some flower pots on my old balcony, I am leaning toward the studies that say over a year.
But isn't tobacco use declining?
When going about my research, I found reports from the United States, Canada, Italy, Australia, and almost every developed country in the world that say smoking rates are going down. So while smoking is declining in developed nations, tobacco companies are still going strong by targeting areas in the developing world where the hazards of smoking are not as commonly known.
Quitting is worth it.
I was a smoker for years. It was not a proud chapter in my life, but a part of it nonetheless. It is safe to assume that the vast majority of us know smoking is bad for our health and our pocketbook, although people may have varied understandings of to what extent this is true.
I knew that many cancers and cardiovascular diseases were related to smoking, but I had no idea about cataracts and multiple sclerosis. Without my girlfriend, who is now my wife, I am not sure if I could have quit so early in my life. She gave me the strength and motivation I needed. I knew how stupid it was to smoke, but I still did it; I was addicted. Little did I know that I was harming the environment as well as my own body.
There is no shortage of information about the negative effects of smoking. It harms your physical health and the environment, and it puts a strain on your financial resources. As an ex-smoker, I know how hard it is to quit. Even today, years later, every now and then I still crave a cigarette. I encourage you to do the research on how smoking affects the things you care about. Every little bit of motivation helps. Do it for yourself, the people you care about, and the world you live in.
- Citizens for Clean Open Spaces. Tobacco’s Impact on the Environment Fact Sheet. Smokefree Oregon.
- CNBC. (June 11, 2008). U.S. tobacco farming is bigger than ever. NBC News.
- Novotny, T. E. et al. (2009). Cigarettes Butts and the Case for an Environmental Policy on Hazardous Cigarette Waste. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 6(5),1691–1705.
- Slaughter, E., et al. (2011). Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish. Tobacco Control.
- Tobacco-Free Life (2016). Smoking and Agriculture: The Toll of Tobacco on Farmers and the Planet. Tobacco-Free Life.
- Vince, Gaia. (2004). Cigarettes more polluting than diesel exhaust. New Scientist.