Big Tobacco’s Big Environmental Impact



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We all know that smoking has a serious impact on our health, but what about the health of our planet?

When we think about cigarettes and pollution, images of cigarette butts and discarded ugly coloured packaging immediately spring to mind. But the environmental footprint left by tobacco stretches across its entire supply chain, and therefore the globe.

In fact, the most resource intensive and environmentally damaging stages of tobacco production are the cultivation and curing stages, which overwhelmingly occur in lower and middle income countries.

The growth of tobacco causes deep and irreparable damage through deforestation, water consumption and the use of pesticides. For example, Malawi is reliant on tobacco for over 60% of its foreign earnings and since the 1970s has seen over 40% of its forest eradicated to make way for tobacco farms and to fuel the curing process of harvested leaves. This deforestation is devastating for local wildlife and ecosystems, but also contributes to climate change, soil erosion, reduced soil fertility and disrupted water cycles.

Not only does this do irreparable damage to the planet, it seriously damages the communities that depend on this crop, threatening sustainable development. Tobacco takes up valuable land for arable crops, which, in a world with an ever-growing population facing huge pressures on natural resources, is something we can ill afford.

So, Imperial Brand’s sustainability strategy, set out in the annual report for today’s AGM, begs the question who exactly is Imperial ‘enabling growth and creating value’ for?

With this is mind, it is no wonder that Imperial choose to focus their ‘sustainability concerns’ solely on the remainder of the supply chain. After cultivation and curing, as we progress through the manufacturing, packing and shipping stages, further demands are placed on fuel, which depletes fossil fuel reserves and releases carcinogenic emissions and greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Whilst this is extremely bad for the environment, it is merely the cherry on top of the very polluted cake, accounting for only around 20% of tobacco’s contribution to climate change.

All this is set out in The World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention for Tobacco Control’s latest report (2018) which concludes that “The environmental damage that tobacco causes, on top of its negative health, social and economic impacts, makes it incompatible with the global development agenda”.

Enabling growth and creating value for select stakeholders, shouldn’t, quite literally, cost the earth.

As well as this, individual smokers and tobacco users have a right to be aware of the impact these products are having. A typical smoker will unknowingly contribute 10 times more fossil fuel depletion and 4 times more to climate change then the average sugar consumer.

Tobacco products aren’t just a threat to your health, they are deeply unethical products that threaten the environment and trap those most in need in cycles of inequality.  As we face ever more critical decisions about how to preserve our planet and sustain our future, this hugely damaging industry needs to face up to its inconvenient truths.

Image shows average smoker’s contribution to environmental damages based on smoking 20 cigarettes a day for 50 years