Smoking is deadly. And not just for us humans.

It has been known for decades that second-hand smoke has a very negative impact on people’s health. Smoking, for example, increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and respiratory problems. And with those diseases, the risk of death also increases; according to the World Health Organization, about 8 million deaths can be traced back to the tobacco industry on an annual basis.

The planet

But it is not only public health that suffers from the use and production of tobacco products, the World Health Organization (WHO) warns today in a report with the poignant title “Tobacco: poisoning our planet† The health of our planet is also severely affected by tobacco products.


That starts with the cultivation of tobacco plants, according to the WHO. This involves about 22 billion tons of water worldwide on an annual basis. “That’s the equivalent of 15 million Olympic swimming pools or roughly the volume of water drained by the Amazon — the world’s largest river — in one day,” the WHO report reads. In addition to water, cultivation also requires intensive fertilization and the use of many pesticides. “Those chemicals escape into surface water, contaminating lakes, rivers and drinking water.” In addition, cultivation naturally also requires fertile soil. “Every year, about 200,000 hectares of land are cleared for growing and drying tobacco.” A lot of trees are killed as a result; sometimes they have to make way for tobacco plants. But much more often they are cut down and then burned to generate the high temperatures needed to dry tobacco leaves. For example, the tobacco industry claims about 600 million trees every year, according to the WHO.


In addition, a lot of CO2 is released during the production and transport of tobacco products. “Tobacco production affects the air we breathe even before we smoke,” the report said. It is estimated that a single cigarette releases about 14 grams of CO2 into the air over its entire life cycle. On an annual basis, the tobacco industry is estimated to be responsible for the emission of about 80 million tons of CO2. That is roughly equivalent to one fifth of the annual CO2 production of the commercial aviation industry.


But it is not only the production of cigarettes and other tobacco products that is bad for the environment. Even (long) after the products have been used by consumers, they still leave their mark on our living environment. “Tobacco products are the most common litter on the planet, harboring more than 7,000 chemicals that – when discarded – end up in the environment,” said Dr. Ruediger Krech, WHO member of the WHO Director of Health Promotion† Roughly 4.5 billion cigarette filters pollute our oceans, rivers, sidewalks, soil and beaches every year. Many of those filters are not biodegradable and remain in the environment for a long time in the form of microplastics. “The filters also release nicotine, heavy metals and other chemicals they have absorbed into their environment. And that affects the livelihoods and health of fishermen in coastal areas and people who consume fish and seafood,” the report reads.


In addition, carelessly discarded butts are also a major cause of fires; it regularly happens that a smoldering cigarette butt causes a hefty wildfire. “In 2010, one cigarette caused a huge fire in India, which resulted in the loss of 60 hectares of forest.”

Tobacco products do poorly in the WHO report. But anyone who thinks that the emerging e-cigarettes are a more environmentally friendly alternative is wrong. They are also cited in the report as an environmental polluter. “Discarded cartridges and batteries from e-cigarettes are a huge environmental concern. The vast majority of plastic cartridges are not reusable or recyclable and end up in sewers, on the streets and in waterways.”


Given the impact tobacco products have on both our health and that of our planet, it is high time to act, the WHO says. And the report calls for quite drastic measures. For example, the WHO proposes to see and treat cigarette filters as what they are: disposable plastic. And single-use plastics – such as straws and single-use plastic plates and cutlery – have already been banned in more and more countries. And if it is up to the WHO, the cigarette filters – which, contrary to what the tobacco industry claims, do not make a cigarette ‘healthier’ – will soon be banned.

The polluter pays

In addition, the WHO proposes to embrace the ‘polluter pays’ principle and to make the tobacco industry pay for the pollution caused. This quickly involves hefty sums. For example, Germany is estimated to have spent around 218 million euros each year on cleaning up dumped tobacco products, such as cigarette butts. In addition, governments could also tax the tobacco industry extra for environmental and climate damage caused.


Moreover, it is very important to continue to take a critical look at the tobacco industry, which in the meantime is doing everything it can to mask the environmental damage caused and even to convince consumers that the industry is nice and green and sustainable. For example, by labeling cigarettes as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ and thus suggesting that they are less harmful to both people and the environment than is actually the case.

But the best way to protect our health and that of the planet remains, of course, to stop (or never start) smoking. Governments and health organizations can also play an important role in this. For example, with campaigns aimed at displaying the damage that cigarettes cause to people and the environment. But also by reducing the number of points of sale of tobacco products and e-cigarettes, making places often visited by children smoke-free and driving up the price of tobacco products.