In addition to its impact on public health, the tobacco industry is also the cause of significant environmental damage, among mountains of pollution and emissions that contribute to climate change, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Tuesday.
The tobacco industry is “one of the biggest polluters we know”WHO director for health promotion, Rüdiger Krech, told AFP, reporting on the findings. “pretty disastrous”† The document, titled “Tobacco, poison for our planet”looks at the environmental footprint of the sector as a whole, from growing plants to manufacturing tobacco products, including consumption and waste.
While the industry is responsible for the loss of 600 million trees, tobacco cultivation uses 200,000 hectares of land, 22 billion tons of water per year and emits about 84 million tons of CO2, according to the report.
4.500 billion cigarette butts
“Tobacco products, the most discarded waste in the world, contain more than 7,000 chemical compounds that, once discarded, leak into the environment.”
†Each of the 4.5 trillion cigarette butts that end up in nature every year can pollute up to 100 liters of waterhe underlines.
The health risks of tobacco are not limited to consumption and waste: almost a quarter of tobacco growers suffer from green tobacco disease, a form of nicotine poisoning through the skin.
In constant contact with leaf tobacco, these farmers consume the equivalent of the nicotine in 50 cigarettes per day, explains Mr Krech, pointing out that the sector employs a large number of children. “Imagine a 12-year-old child exposed to 50 cigarettes a day”he decides.
According to the report, tobacco is often grown in relatively poor countries, where water and farmland are often scarce, and where these crops provide crucial food production. Tobacco cultivation is also responsible for about 5% of global deforestation and contributes to the depletion of precious water reserves.
A significant proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions also come from tobacco processing and transportation – the equivalent of one-fifth of the carbon footprint of air travel.
The WHO also warns of tobacco-derived products – cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes – that contribute significantly to the accumulation of plastic pollution in the world.
Cigarette filters contain traces of microplastics, those tiny fragments found in oceans around the world, including at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest in the world – making it the world’s second largest source of plastic pollution.
However, contrary to what the tobacco industry claims, there is no evidence that these filters have a beneficial effect on health, the WHO emphasizes. The UN agency is therefore urging policymakers around the world to treat these filters as single-use plastic and consider banning them. She also regrets that the huge cost of cleaning up tobacco industry waste is borne by taxpayers around the world.
According to the report, China spends about $2.6 billion annually to process tobacco product waste. For India, the bill is $766 million, while Brazil and Germany have to pay $200 million each.
The WHO is therefore urging more countries to follow the example of France and Spain by adopting the polluter pays principle. For Rüdiger Krech it is important that: “The industry really pays for the damage it does.”