People smoke cigarettes for a number of reasons — to relieve stress and anxiety, to conform to social pressure, or simply to experiment. Compelling ad campaigns and cigarette usage in movies, television, and video games often tell a glamorous story of life as a smoker, which helps to convince many people every year to give it a try. Unfortunately, the nicotine in cigarettes is highly addictive, and people quickly fall under the spell of the drug, exposing themselves to over 4000 different compounds on a regular basis.
You’re probably aware on some level that cigarettes are unhealthy for our bodies, but many people don’t realize the farther reaching environmental effects cigarette smoking can have. Here are some of the major impacts of smoking on our health and the environment as well as strategies for lessening some of the damage.
Public Health Concerns
We’ve known for decades (at least) that cigarette smoking is bad for our health, causing cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, and several types of cancer. Globally, cigarettes cause about 5 million deaths from lung cancer per year, and this number is only expected to rise. Unfortunately, the majority of these deaths are preventable, and yet over 1 billion people still smoke today. The number of smokers is particularly high in low-income populations, and those without access to educational resources about the harmful effects of smoking may not even be aware of the damage cigarettes can do.
This is, in part, why smoking cessation programs are at the core of life saving preventative health services. Typically, nurses will connect a smoker with a counselor who will help the person to identify their specific smoking triggers. The smoker may also go through behavioral therapy, either in groups or individually with a counselor, in order to discuss other ways to cope with situations and feelings that trigger the urge to smoke. People might also be encouraged to try nicotine replacement therapy, in which smokers would get the addictive chemical from patches, gum, lozenges, or inhalers, rather than cigarettes.
A number of local and international public health initiatives have also been put into place to discourage the high number of smokers. These include bans on smoking within enclosed indoor public places as well as certain outdoor spaces. Regulations like these make it more difficult for smokers to conveniently keep up their habit as well as minimizing the general public’s exposure to secondhand smoke. Raising taxes on tobacco products has also been effective in reducing smokers and preventing youths from picking up the habit in the first place.
Aside from the direct impact to our health, the amount of trash created by cigarette waste is a major environmental problem. With trillions of cigarettes produced every year, some reports estimate that smokers create 2 billion pounds of cigarette butts annually. This accounts for around 38 percent of litter worldwide, making cigarette butts the most littered item.
After about twelve years, discarded cigarette butts will eventually break down, though some toxic chemicals present within cigarette butts will remain for much longer. Hazardous substances like arsenic, nicotine, lead, and ethylphenol have been found in cigarette butts, and these toxins leak into our soil as well as lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and other water sources. This can affect the quality of our drinking water. Unfortunately, many animals mistake cigarette butts for food and become poisoned, and the toxins can travel up the food chain, potentially poisoning other animals as well as people.
For those who are struggling to give up the habit, vaping offers a more environmentally friendly alternative to smoking cigarettes. However, in order to cut down on waste and maximize this environmental benefit, smokers who choose to vape should buy their products from companies that emphasize recycling. For example, many vape pens can be cleaned and refilled, and most others are made from plastic parts and batteries that can be recycled. It’s also worth noting that vaping can greatly reduce the amount of toxins smokers would breathe in.
Tobacco farming is a complicated and environmentally harmful process. Tobacco is a monocrop, meaning it is grown on the same land year after year without being rotated. Because of this, tobacco plants are vulnerable to a number of diseases and pests, which farmers combat with large amounts of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and plant growth regulators. This is especially problematic in low- and middle-income countries that lack strict regulations.
In these areas, the chemicals are often applied to the crops with backpack sprayers, and workers don’t have the necessary protective equipment, which puts them at risk for pesticide poisoning and other chemical exposure. These chemicals have also been shown to pollute aquatic environments, destroying supplies of fish and organisms necessary for maintaining soil health.
Tobacco absorbs more nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus than other crops, which means tobacco quickly depletes nutrients in the soil. The industry is also responsible for massive deforestation, which occurs for two main reasons. First, many tobacco producers clear woodlands each year in order to find fresh soil plots for their crops. Second, the process of curing the tobacco requires burning wood in kilns at a constant temperature for several days. In order to meet this need, farmers take large amounts of wood from nearby forests or public lands.
What Are We Doing to Create Change?
In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) established the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which is a treaty signed by 168 countries designed to create policies that will protect future generations from the health, social, environmental, and economic consequences of the tobacco industry. This group of countries continues to develop policies and implementation strategies that will reduce the negative impacts of the tobacco industry, including initiatives that focus on improving unsafe working conditions and strengthening regulations on tobacco agriculture to prevent land degradation and deforestation.
It’s worth noting, consumers today expect companies to conduct ethical business practices. Yet the main product of tobacco companies has been proven to kill people when used as directed. To offset these negative associations, along with the environmental impacts of their industry, some tobacco companies emphasize their corporate social responsibility programs. However, in many cases, these efforts seem to be self-serving as tobacco companies are merely trying to improve their public image, gain access to politicians, and shape public health policy to match their own interests. To combat this, some have called for a stronger implementation of a particular section of the FCTC which was designed to protect public health policies from tobacco industry influence.
Despite the WHO’s efforts, tobacco companies have promoted policies that allow them to avoid environmental responsibility. Also, many countries have been slow to comply with the regulations and suggestions of the treaty. More than a decade later, the FCTC has made little progress in creating real positive change in global tobacco policy. However, they have had some success in raising the number of countries that include cigarette warning labels, policies about smoking in public places, and reducing tobacco use in many low- and middle-income countries.
As we move forward, it is important to be aware of the hidden health and environmental costs of the tobacco industry. And though FCTC initiatives haven’t been a major success, the program is still relatively young. As more countries sign on and make efforts to comply with new regulations, we may see a world less hindered by the tobacco industry.