The environmental impact of tobacco and smoking

(UPDATE: I quit smoking on July 24, 2012 with the assistance of ecigarettes)

I’ve often wondered what the collective impact on the environment the tobacco industry has had. My brain shorts out after a while of considering this for one simple reason. I’m a smoker. A heavy smoker. So much so that when I buy my tobacco and I’m asked how long it lasts me; the tobacconist’s eyes pop. That’s heavy. I may have to resort to heroin dealing to support my tobacco habit. Joking of course, but it’s a bit like that.

The reasons why I continue to smoke are complex but at the same time simple. I’m addicted. Addiction is two pronged – physical compulsion coupled with mental obsession. Addiction is a powerful and very odd form of insanity. 

I kicked a lot of other substance habits many years ago that threatened to kill me and hurt those around me; including alcohol (that’s another story on another web site), but the “dreaded weed” as my mother used to call it still has its hooks in nice and deep.

OK, now having come clean on that and provided full disclosure – on with the article. I’m writing this as:

a) a reminder to me of what my habit does

b) to give people thinking about quitting smoking some extra incentive.

Share this article with “green” smokers you know – no, not that sort of green :). It may help them reach a tipping point.

The tobacco industry, while nowhere near as powerful as in the past, is still thriving. Governments make huge profits from tobacco – for example, in Australia, 70% of the price of a pack of cigarettes is tax. Last time I checked, the smokers of our small country were pouring something like 6 billion bucks a year into government coffers.

So, while we’re paying our way (I call it pre-paid palliative care) in one aspect, we’re certainly not doing the environment any favors.

  • Here’s some frightening information in relation to what we’re doing to the planet, mostly provided by the Health Department of Western Australia.
  • Nearly 600 million trees of forest are destroyed each year to provide wood to dry tobacco.
  • in Tanzania, an estimated 65 pounds of wood is needed to dry a pound of tobacco
  • In countries where wood isn’t used, LPG, coal or oil is used for drying
  • by 2010, 87 percent of the world’s tobacco will be grown in the developing world.
  • A modern cigarette manufacturing machine can use up to 3.7 miles of paper an hour
  • Tobacco plants use more nutrients than many other crops, degrading the soil.
  • Vast quantities of pesticides, fertilizer and herbicides are used on tobacco crops. Some crops requires over a dozen applications of pesticides during the three-month growing period.

I never really gave much thought to the tobacco drying situation – that’s astounding.

Cigarette butts

Our cigarette butts also do a lot of damage. I thought they were made of cotton (not the most environmentally friendly crop), but it seems to be often a form of plastic. The polymer acetate filters are comprised of thousands of fibers that can take up to 15 years to break down. The residue from tobacco in the butts also releases toxins into the environment. Trillions of butts are discarded each year.

Tobacco additives

If all that wasn’t enough, there’s all sorts of additives dumped into tobacco for flavoring, color and preserving. But don’t just take my word for it – check out the tobacco ingredient list from Philip Morris USA, a major cigarette manufacturer. But wait, there’s more – here’s a list from Philip Morris of all the additional non-tobacco ingredients they use. There’s some nasty stuff in those lists – and that’s what we’re cranking into not only our lungs, but an already pollution ladened atmosphere.

Forest fires

Discarded cigarettes are a major cause of forest fire in the USA, not to mention fatal fires generally. Over 1000 Americans lose their lives a year from tobacco related fires.

Michael the Hypocrite?

Given my love of nature and the topic of this site, my hypocrisy is not lost upon me – nobody need point that out. Thanks :).

Let’s just say it’s such an environmental achilles heel for me that on my list of things I need to green in my life it’s the very last item. I was even contemplating growing my own air-dried, additive and pesticide free  tobacco but I believe it may be illegal to do so in this country. Anyhow, while usually the articles I write present the problem and offer some solutions – the problem of smoking really has no solution except cessation.

Being so heavily addicted means I’ll probably continue to stick other “green todos” on my list and I expect I’ll be living in a cave, dressed in hessian and eating dirt (raw of course) before I get to that stage. I have little doubt my habit will end my life before that day comes.

If you’re currently in the process of quitting – you have my deepest respect. Not only are you doing yourself, your wallet and those around you a favor, it’s another way you’re helping to save the environment.