Tobacco is also very damaging to the environment!
On the 31st of May, as every year, the World No Tobacco Day (WNTD) will be celebrated and the theme chosen by the World Health Organization (WHO) for 2022 is “Protect the Environment” . Below are some excerpts from the official WHO communiqué.
- Around the world, approximately 3.5 million hectares of land are destroyed each year to grow tobacco.
- Tobacco cultivation also contributes to the deforestation of 200,000 hectares per year and soil degradation.
- Tobacco production depletes the planet of water, fossil fuels and metal resources.
- The globalization of the tobacco supply chain and sales means that the tobacco industry relies heavily on resource-intensive modes of transport.
- 4,500 billion cigarette butts are not properly disposed of each year worldwide, generating 7.7 billion kg of toxic waste and releasing thousands of chemicals into the air, water and soil.
By choosing this theme, the WHO wanted to raise awareness of the extremely harmful effects of tobacco on the environment as well as on health. The damage to our ecosystem is already real, but very often ignored or underestimated.
For example, cigarette butts are dangerous waste, as they contain the same thousands of dangerous chemicals as smoking (carcinogens, mutagens, toxic substances, irritants, heavy metals such as lead and mercury, etc.) and should therefore be collected separately and managed as ‘harmful’ waste. This is currently not yet possible as there is no specific EWC code (European Waste Catalogue) and therefore cigarette butts are disposed of as “undifferentiated waste” . Legambiente estimates that in Italy, on average, 70 butts are found every 100 linear meters of beach and that smoking-related waste (butts, cigarette packets, lighters, etc.) accounts for 40% of all waste found in parks . In addition, tobacco filters are made of cellulose acetate, a non-biodegradable plastic material, and have therefore been included among “disposable” plastic waste by the recent legislation on single-use plastics, which came into force in Italy on 14th January 2022 (Italy was almost five months late in transposing the European Directive known as “SUP”, single-use plastic of 2019) .
Although not biodegradable, butts fragment into microplastics and, mistaken for plankton, are ingested by marine animals, becoming part of our food chain. Microplastics pose major risks not only to marine and terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity but also to our health [5-7]. The problem of cigarette butts emerged more than a decade ago and it was well represented by Professor Thomas E. Novotny of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) . Cigarette filters have been a marketing tool to sell cigarettes as “safer”, but the burden of disease and suffering associated with them has remained very high, and just now we are finally beginning to consider the environmental pollution they cause [9-11].
New heated tobacco products (HTPs) and e-cigarettes containing electrical/electronic parts and batteries in the devices should be disposed of as WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment), but the information provided to consumers about their disposal is often vague. The lack of consumer awareness of the presence of polluting and toxic compounds in their device, combined with the small size of the device, means that consumers dispose of the product as normal household waste, ignoring or underestimating the damage caused to the environment, similar to what happens with other small products such as bluetooth earphones [12-17].
The WHO official statement also aims to denounce greenwashing actions by the tobacco industry to clean up its reputation and make its products more attractive by marketing them as environmentally friendly. Multinational companies have made environmental sustainability a cornerstone of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies: cleaning beaches, distributing pocket ashtrays, funding ad hoc studies that only partially reveal data on the environmental impact caused by the production, sale and disposal of their products, with the complacency of political actors and business partners. For example, huge amounts of water are used for tobacco production (2,925 m3 for a ton of tobacco, compared to 1,600 m3 for a ton of cereals and 200 m3 for a ton of sugar). Water is needed not only for cultivation but also for processing the leaves since, once dried, the tobacco has to be soaked in water vapor to ensure a certain level of moisture and then additives are added. As tobacco is often monoculture, it also requires large amounts of pesticides and a large proportion of the raw materials come from secondary, untraceable producers.
The impact of tobacco on the environment is far-reaching and unfortunately underestimated and/or ignored by most, and it risks undermining the achievement of all the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (the UN initiative to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all” as part of a new sustainable development agenda, the 2030 Agenda) . The Swiss Association for Tobacco Prevention, publishes a monthly feature on the impact of tobacco on each of the Sustainable Development Goals, edited by journalist Julie Zaugg .
“Tobacco”, explains Adriana Blanco Marquizo, Director of the Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), “costs the planet over a trillion dollars each year in health care costs and lost productivity due to workers getting sick or dying at a young age”, but nature also suffers: “from the beginning to the end of their life cycle, tobacco products have deleterious effects on the environment, as they promote desertification, contaminate water supplies, deplete the soil and occupy land that could be used to grow edible vegetables”.
The WNTD 2022 campaign calls on governments and policymakers to strengthen legislation and monitor its implementation, to make manufacturers accountable for the environmental costs and economic management of tobacco waste.
WHO also recommends that countries completely ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, including advertising of CSR programs, in accordance with the WHO FCTC.
In a world where the concept of One Health (the holistic approach to health based on the recognition of the inextricable link between human, animal and environmental health) is increasingly popular, it is essential to raise awareness of the harm tobacco causes to the environment and to help de-normalize tobacco use in all forms.
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