The environmental harm caused by the tobacco industry

A bird pecking a discarded cigarette filter. More than five trillion cigarettes are produced every year, creating an enormous amount of waste.


When we consider the environmental harm caused by tobacco, many of us tend to think about smoking-related litter in the streets see this factsheet on smoking-related litter (PDF) [1] and this research paper calling for an environmental policy on hazardous cigarette waste [2] for more information. However, tobacco’s environmental damage goes way beyond the local.

Tobacco farming contributes to deforestation and the pollution of waterways, especially in low and middle income countries.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals [3] are clear about the importance of the environment for human health and wellbeing. Goal 6 focuses on the availability and sustainability of water and sanitation [4] and Goal 13 calls for urgent action on climate change and its impacts [5].

600 million trees fall victim to tobacco farming every year (PDF) [6]. These are cut down to make way for tobacco crops, burned during the tobacco curing process and used for construction of curing barns. Trees are nature’s way of absorbing carbon dioxide, so this loss contributes to climate change. It is also a major contributory factor in weakening the soil and can accelerate soil erosion. It can be devastating to wider local ecosystems due to the loss of habitat and food sources. [7]

Tobacco is also a sensitive plant, requiring pesticides and other chemicals in order to grow, depleting further the quality of the soil and toxifying local water systems. [7]

We must #ActOnTobacco now to protect communities, wildlife and the environment.

We call on governments to implement more stringent environmental regulations to minimise the environmental harm caused by tobacco companies. We also want these companies to compensate those affected by their negative and harmful actions, based upon the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle which is often applied to climate change. [8]

Here’s how you can #ActOnTobacco:

  • Take photos of smoking related litter or other pollution and share them on social media with the tag #ActOnTobacco.
  • Contact tobacco companies and ask them how they intend to pay for the environmental damage they have caused.
  • Share your stories or worries about the environmental damage caused by the tobacco industry and tag them #ActOnTobacco.
  • Share this story with your networks and encourage them to do the same.

[1] Public Health England. Smoking: litter. [Accessed April 2017]
[2] Novotny TE et al. Cigarettes butts and the case for an environmental policy on hazardous cigarette waste. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health May 2009; 6(5): 1691–1705.
[3] United Nations. Sustainable development goals. [Accessed April 2017]
[4] United Nations. Goal 6: Ensure access to water and sanitation for all. [Accessed April 2017]
[5] United Nations. Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. [Accessed April 2017]
[6] Framework Convention Alliance. Tobacco: A barrier to sustainable development. March 2015.
[7]World Health Organization. Environmental issues. [Accessed April 2017]
[8] The Guardian. What is the ‘polluter pays’ principle? 2 July 2012.