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The demand for tobacco products causes widespread environmental degradation because tobacco farming

Tobacco growing, production, marketing and consumption are devastating our environment. Tobacco cultivation causes deforestation and over-utilizes harmful chemicals. The waste from production— much of it toxic— and disposal of packaging and cigarette butts pollute our fragile ecosystems.

Photo: Photo: Ed Reinke, AP



The production of tobacco and tobacco products causes widespread environmental degradation around the world. It begins with the preparation of land for tobacco cultivation and carries through the life of these products as they are manufactured, marketed and consumed.

With the rapid increase in global tobacco consumption in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the demand for tobacco leaf increased dramatically. This has led to a correspondingly dramatic increase in the amount of land dedicated to tobacco production.

Frequently, farmers clear the forest by burning it; often, this land is agriculturally marginal and after only a few seasons, the land is abandoned, contributing in many cases to desertification. Not only does burning generate vast amounts of air and land, water and air pollutants, much of this land is cleared from carbon dioxide-absorbing forest cover. As a result, tobacco cultivation is exacerbating greenhouse gas levels.

Tobacco cultivation is typically one of the most chemically-intensive crops. Because much of the land on which tobacco is grown is marginal, most farmers heavily use inorganic chemical fertilizers to promote growth and herbicides to mitigate competing weeds. Because tobacco is typically grown as a monocrop, it is also particularly vulnerable to pests and most farmers heavily use pesticides. Furthermore, in many countries, there is evidence that farmers continue to use chemicals that are restricted or banned in most higher-HDI regions, such as the European Union.

The tobacco product manufacturing process generates vast amounts of waste. The last rigorous estimate, from 1995, suggested that the industry produces more than 2.5 million tonnes of manufacturing waste much of which contains nicotine and other dangerous chemicals. As global tobacco production is greater than in 1995, this negative impact can only be higher still today.

The packaging and labeling of tobacco products is resource-intensive in terms of the paper, plastic and chemicals that manufacturers use. Millions of tons of packaging waste, much of it plastic, ends up as litter or helps to overwhelm landfills around the world. Similarly, the disposal of cigarette waste after consumption causes harm to the environment. In beach clean-up efforts around the world, cigarette butts comprise the largest component of the waste.

Lastly, the fires caused by cigarettes do tremendous damage to the environment, beyond their costs in terms of lives lost and direct economic loss. Cigarette smoking is a major cause of both house and forest fires throughout the world. In both the USA and the United Kingdom, cigarettes are the single greatest cause of fire-related deaths, and are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in fire-related

Dangerous Pesticides


Affects brain, immune and reproductive system in animals and humans; highly toxic even at low doses; soil and ground water contaminant. USA, phasing out by 2018. EU member states, highly restricted use.


Affects brain and respiratory system at high doses; found widely in soil, water, air, and food. USA, banned for home use in 2000.


Highly toxic effects on skin, eye, respiratory and reproductive system; leaches readily into groundwater; probable cancer-causing agent in humans. EU member states, phased out in 2009.


Affects brain and reproductive system; highly toxic to bees and other beneficial insects and certain bird species; persistent in the environment in soil, water, and as a food contaminant; contains naphthalene and crystalline quartz silica, which are cancer-causing agents; used in large volumes in agriculture. EU member states, two-year ban for use on crops attractive to bees in 2013.

Methyl Bromide

Affects skin, eye, brain and respiratory system; may cause fluid in lungs, headaches, tremors, paralysis or convulsions; volatile, ozone-depleting agent. Phasing out by 2015 under Montreal Protocol of the United Nations Environment Programme.


Lung-damaging agent; high-level exposures cause vomiting, fluid in lungs, unconsciousness and even death; toxic to fish and other organisms; used as a tear gas in WWI. EU member states, banned since 2011.


Affects brain, immune and reproductive systems; likely cancer-causing agent, linked with cancer among farmers; linked with low sperm counts among exposed men; toxic to bees and other beneficial insects and aquatic life; contaminant in air and water. EU member states, banned since 2007.

What Can We Do Shorter-Term?

  • Demand stronger regulations on tobacco manufacturers, including:

  • Improved manufacturing waste mitigation,

  • Ban of single-use filters, and

  • Packaging mitigation for the overuse of paper and plastic products.

  • Legislate that the tobacco industry pays for this environmental mitigation.

  • Litigate the industry if they do not pay for the environmental destruction they are creating.

How Can We Help Tobacco Farmers?

  • Help tobacco farmers to find environmentally-friendly alternative crops, by improving:

  • Supply and value chains of other locally-grown crops.

  • Extension services and agricultural education for non-tobacco crops.

  • Access to credit for cultivating non-tobacco crops.

  • Enforce the WHO FCTC commitment that governments not invest in tobacco farming.

  • For farmers continuing to cultivate tobacco, help to educate them on environmentally friendlier practices.

This Article originally appeared at The Tobacco Atlas


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