Atti del XXIV Convegno Nazionale Tabagismo e Servizio Sanitario Nazionale
Pubblicato: 2022-09-21

Environmental pollution associated to tobacco use: from farming to disposal

Dipartimento Ambiente e Salute, Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Roma


The environmental quality is one of the fundamental health determinants for a given population: environmental quality promotion (and indirectly food and consumer product safety) is a crucial step for an effective prevention policy, suggesting primary prevention actions to reduce exposure to risk factors.

It is therefore logical that WHO for its no tobacco day 2022 campaign has dealt with the impact on the environment associated with tobacco and its products life cycle phases:

  1. growing and cultivation;
  2. product manufacturing;
  3. distribution and transport;
  4. consumption;
  5. disposal of tobacco products [1].

Each of these stages has negative implications for the environment, and consequently on human health, as briefly described in the following [2].

Despite the gradual abolition of EU subsidies related to tobacco cultivation, completed with the 2014 harvest, caused a 57% decline in tobacco areas from 2000 to 2018, Italy remains the main European tobacco producer with over 59K tons and about 17K hectares cultivated (97% of which located in 4 regions: Campania, Umbria, Veneto and Tuscany). This represents about 25% of the total European production and 1% of world production [3-5].

About 90% of the world tobacco production (≈ 6 million tons on an area of 3.3 million hectares) is concentrated in low-income countries including India, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Pakistan, where the tobacco industry often represents one of the driving sectors for the country's economy (Table 1).

In the last years, the world production has only slightly declined (12% and 9% for production and cultivated areas, respectively); in China, the world's leading producer, has indeed increased: since 1980 tobacco production has more than tripled. In the US, the tobacco farming decline has been paralleled by increasing imports from abroad [3].

The agricultural techniques used in tobacco farming are not environmentally sustainable: it is estimated that for the cultivation and curing of tobacco about 200,000 hectares of land are cleared to the detriment of both forests and other crops, which could have been used to meet food needs [6,7]. To make space for tobacco growing and to obtain wood for curing tobacco leaves after harvesting, trees must be cut down and land cleared: approximately one tree is needed to make 300 cigarettes. The WHO estimates that about 5% of total deforestation is related to tobacco cultivation (mainly affecting low-income tropical areas), with loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, water pollution, increased CO2 emission. It has been estimated that since 1970, tobacco-related deforestation has contributed up to 20% of the annual increase in greenhouse gases [1].

Tobacco is grown as a monoculture: compared with other agricultural rotational crops tobacco farming has a far more destructive impact on soil and on ecosystems, causing soil depletion, acidification and alteration of the chemical-physical structure since the tobacco plant absorbs nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from the soil much more than other plants do [8]. Although this phenomenon is partially counteracted by an extensive use of fertilizers and growth regulators, after a few years tobacco farm lands are more prone to soil erosion and desertification. Indeed, rehabilitating the soil is very expensive and unsustainable for low-income countries [9].

Tobacco growing is resource-intensive and since soils are also more vulnerable to the plant parasites spread, Plant Protection Products (PPP) are heavily used. In Italy and in Europe the use of PPP is highly regulated, with the safety of active ingredients evaluated at EFSA level (with the contribution of experts from all the Member States) and the PPP then placed on the market after safety evaluation carried out by Member States [10]. Under the conditions of use authorized and reported on the label, no negative health impacts (for both consumers, operators and bystanders) or effects on the environment are expected. This is not the case in many other areas: active ingredients banned in Europe due to their potential to cause adverse effects on human, animal and environmental health are often used, working conditions in low-income countries are poorly controlled, farmers do not necessarily use personal protective equipment (PPE). This is of concern particularly for children between the ages of 5 and 15, frequently employed in tobacco farming in those countries where the tobacco cultivation and export represent the majority of their income [11].

However, for tobacco farmers compared to PPPs nicotine is by far a worse risk factor, not perceived by most people as such. A tobacco farmer who plants, grows and harvests tobacco in one working day without appropriate PPE can absorb the amount of nicotine found in 50 cigarettes [12]. Secondary harmful exposures for their families is due to the presence of tobacco dust on their clothes and shoes. As a consequence, about 25% of farmers suffer from acute nicotine poisoning or Green Tobacco Sickness, whose symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headache, increased sweating, chills, abdominal pain, diarrhea, increased salivation, weakness, wheezing and blood pressure alteration [12]. Not to dismiss the known chronic effects of nicotine [13]. The risk is higher for children and adolescents manipulating tobacco leaves: in addition to nicotine addiction, cases of early renal dysfunction have been reported.

The tobacco cultivation is characterised by a high demand for water compared to other crops (about 8-fold more water than tomatoes or potatoes). The cigarettes production in 2015 in Brazil required about 264 billion liters of water, which would have been enough for the annual supply of drinking water to Brasilia (3.7 million inhabitants) [1].

The impact of smoking on the indoor and outdoor air quality is linked to the emission of three greenhouse gases: CO2, methane and nitrogen oxides (equivalent to the annual emissions of 1.5 million motor vehicles) and many other substances including formaldehyde (≈ 6,000 t) and nicotine (≈ 47,000 t) [1,9]. Beside the increase in CO2 associated to deforestation, tobacco production and manufacturing contribute to nearly 84 million tons of CO2 emissions per year. An additional carbon footprint is associated to the emissions of vehicles used for the transport of raw materials and finished products in the distribution phase.

Disposal after use has another significant environmental impact: globally, the waste generated annually by tobacco life cycle amounts to approximately 25 million tons [14]. About 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are disposed into the environment every year, mainly associated to the improper habits of 65% of cigarette smokers to discard them almost everywhere [1,15]. Particularly of concern is the habit to throw burning butts into green areas in periods of drought or in the presence of flammable material generating fires: in Italy in 2020 the Lombardy Region identifies butts as responsible for 13% of fires with loss of 208 ha of forest.

At present most cigarettes have a filter, the purpose of which is to limit the intake of toxic substances contained into the cigarette or formed during smoking, by retaining them: once discarded butts can release the toxic residues into the environment. Furthermore, filters are made of cellulose acetate, a poorly degradable material: a butt takes from 1 to 15 years to degrade, can generate secondary microplastics, and represent an ecological disaster being frequently found in the stomach of birds, fish and sea turtles [16,17].

For a correct disposal, cigarette butts have to be thrown into containers for undifferentiated waste, avoiding to dispose them in the organic fraction or inside the toilet (this prevent polluting the sewer system and causing dangerous obstructions, due to the limited butts biodegradability). The advice is to use portable containers that allow any smoker to store cigarette butts when outdoors, making sure to correctly dispose them later on.

However, beside butts, cigarette and tobacco for “roll your own” packaging worldwide produces 2,000,000 tons of waste (paper, ink, cellophane, glue and aluminium plastic bags) [15] as well as packaging of “tobacco no smoke” products, such as “gutkha”, a tobacco-based chewing gum, very popular in India (despite being banned since 2002) but present today in new markets both in Asia and Africa.

Electronic cigarettes represent an additional serious environmental threat, due to the improper disposal of plastic cartridges (not reusable), batteries and 'devices' made up with not biodegradable materials. The situation is even worse for heated tobacco products: the environmental impact associated to tobacco growing, cure, manufacturing and distribution are exactly the same as compared to traditional cigarettes, to which the disposal of filters and devices has to be added [1,18-20].

To counteract this worrying picture, appropriate measures need to be taken, as suggested by the WHO. The starting point can be the Article 18 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control: “the Parties agree to have due regard to the protection of the environment and the health of persons in relation to the environment in respect of tobacco cultivation and manufacture within their respective territories” [21].

As an example, to mitigate the problem of waste from tobacco and e-cigarette products, Governments can impose an environmental policy approach, according to which the producer is also responsible for managing the waste once the product has been consumed. Along this line, Governments could impose an environmental tax on tobacco producers, distributors and consumers for emissions and other environmental costs caused during the tobacco life-cycle. Countries should take appropriate measures to phase out the use of plastic in tobacco products starting with filters. And finally, farmers should be economically supported through government incentives in the replacement of tobacco with other more sustainable crops [1,18].

In Italy, a good starting step is represented by the EU Directive 2019/904 better known as the SUP (Single Use Plastics) Directive on reducing the impact of plastic products on the environment, implemented by Law No. 53 of 22 April 2021, which also bans cigarette filters containing plastic [15]. A national legislation introduced in 2016 also imposes fines from 30 to 300 euros for those improperly disposing cigarette butts, with the purpose of raising awareness towards a waste management respecting the environment.

While the main objective remains the reduction of smokers and smoking, regardless of whether it is traditional cigarettes or other products, it is good to know that cigarette butts can be recycled, transforming acetate cellulose of filters in composite materials and plastics used in the building and construction sector. There are start up and small enterprises in the world, including Italy that are able to transform a dangerous waste into a resource, with transformation of cigarette butts into biofuel, inert material or plastics.

In conclusion, we showed how the tobacco production world-wide is concentrated (90%) in low-income countries; in 2018 Italy was the main European producer (25%, corresponding to 1% of world production). The agricultural techniques used in the tobacco production, generally conducted as a monoculture, are poorly sustainable for the environment. In fact, large plots of land are used, with possible deforestation and loss of biodiversity, due to soil depletion and subsequent desertification, which also involves extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides. For operators growing, harvesting and handling tobacco, nicotine absorbed through the skin is a significant risk factor, which is often overlooked, especially in low-income countries, where the use of safety devices is limited. The impact related to distribution and use of tobacco products on water and air is certainly relevant due to the emission of greenhouse gases and many other substances, but the contribution of disposal is important as well. This is valid both for traditional cigarettes (packaging and butts, a kind of waste loaded with toxic substances, consisting of poorly degradable cellulose acetate), and for other products (e.g. e-cigarette and heated tobacco products) for improper disposal of single-use plastic cartridges, batteries and devices whose materials are not biodegradable.

Figures and tables

Country Tobacco production (t/years)
China 3.150.000
Brazil 850.000
India 830.000
U.S.A. 345.000
Indonesia 260.000
Europa 240.000
Table 1.Annual tobacco production in some the main world producers.


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Emanuela Testai

Dipartimento Ambiente e Salute, Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Roma


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