New report from the Secretariat of the WHO FCTC demonstrates how the tobacco industry destroys the environment and undermines sustainable development

26 September 2018

New report from the Secretariat of the WHO FCTC demonstrates how the tobacco industry destroys the environment and undermines sustainable development

The devastating impact that the tobacco industry has on human health is well known – tobacco use kills about 7 million people each year. However, a new report published today outlines systematically for the first time the substantial impact of the tobacco industry on the environment and on sustainable development. Commissioned by the Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control from Imperial College London, the report is being launched at the Eighth Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 8) to the WHO FCTC in Geneva today.[1]

Dr Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, Head of the Secretariat of the WHO FCTC, said, “Tobacco control is a development issue. The damage to the environment occurs across the entire life cycle of tobacco products due to deforestation, water pollution from pesticide use, and cigarette littering. The WHO FCTC, a treaty that covers more than 90% of the world’s population is the response to this problem.

This global assessment of tobacco production reveals a massive imbalance. Almost 90% of all tobacco growing is concentrated in the developing world – of the top ten tobacco growing countries, nine are developing and four are low-income food-deficit countries (LIFDCs), including India, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Malawi. However, most of the profits from the industry end up in developed countries.

Dr Nicholas Hopkinson, co-author of the report from the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London said, “Tobacco Transnationals based in high income countries are literally and metaphorically burning the resources and the future of the most vulnerable people on our planet.

The global cultivation of tobacco requires substantial land use, water consumption, pesticides and labour – all finite resources that could be put to better use. Harmful impacts include deforestation leading to climate change; water and soil depletion; human toxicity; ecosystem eutrophication; and acidification.

Processing, the curing of tobacco leaves to produce dry tobacco, is highly energy intensive with use of coal or wood contributing to greenhouse gas emission and deforestation. Additional inputs and waste production occur with the transport and manufacture of cigarettes as well as their final use and disposal.

In a world facing enormous pressures on natural resources, tobacco competes with valuable commodities that are essential for humanity and adds significant pressures on the health of our planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants.

Professor Voulvoulis, co-author of the report from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College, London said, “The environmental impacts of cigarette smoking, from cradle to grave, add significant pressures to the planet’s increasingly scarce resources and fragile ecosystems. Tobacco reduces our quality of life as it competes for resources with commodities valuable to livelihoods and development across the world.

Tobacco’s environmental footprint, together with its negative health, social and economic implications, make it incompatible with the global sustainable development agenda, in particular SDGs 12 – responsible consumption and production, 13 – climate action, 14 – life under water, and 15 life on land. Maria Zafeiridou, co-author of the report, added “Tobacco control is an indispensable part of any solution to accelerating the world’s transition to a sustainable path.

The report analyses the impact of tobacco globally, at national level among producer countries and for individuals. Globally, the cultivation of 32.4 Million tonnes (Mt) of green tobacco, used for the production of 6.48 Mt of dry tobacco in the six trillion cigarettes manufactured worldwide in 2014, contributes almost 84 Mt CO2 equivalent emissions to climate change – approximately 0.2% of the global total. Tobacco production also uses more than 22 billion tonnes of water.

The report also highlights the excessive environmental impact of tobacco compared to other crops. These typically require fewer inputs, Moreover, the yield of these crops is in many cases considerably higher than that of tobacco. For example, in Zimbabwe a hectare of land could produce 19 times more potatoes than the 1–1.2 tonnes of tobacco currently cultivated.

The evidence also suggests that growing alternative crops is better for farmers and their families. Child labour remains a major issue in tobacco production, impacting on childrens’ health and rights including their access to education.

At an individual level the lifetime environmental impact of being a smoker is calculated: a person smoking a pack of 20 cigarettes per day for 50 years is responsible for 1.4 million litres of water depletion.

The report calls for a range of actions to address these issues. These include strengthening the global evidence base so that gaps in the current environmental data can be filled, encouraging sustainable investment as well as making sure that the environmental cost of tobacco is included in the price and that the industry takes responsibility for the whole life cycle of its products.

Tobacco farmers must be assisted to switch to alternative crops or activities and steps should be taken to minimise environmental damage on farms.

Dr Nicholas Hopkinson said, “As well as the death and disease caused by active and passive smoking, the public need to be aware of the environmental impact of the tobacco industry. Cigarettes should be thought of as an unethical product, not just as one that is harmful to individual consumers.


Notes and Links:

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control entered into force in February 2005 and has today 181 Parties. The Convention is a milestone in the promotion of public health. It is an evidence-based treaty that reaffirms the right of people to the highest standard of health, provides legal dimensions for international health cooperation and sets high standards for compliance. The Conference of the Parties of the WHO FCTC is the governing body of the Convention.

This report was commissioned by the WHO FCTC Convention Secretariat to support the high level segment at the WHO FCTC Conference of the Parties on the environmental impact of tobacco. This report was prepared with the generous funding of the Government of Australia under the Convention Secretariat’s FCTC 2030 project. The preparation of this report was carried out with the support of the WHO FCTC Secretariat and greatly benefited from comments, inputs, and advice provided by Action on Smoking and Health (UK) and the Framework Convention Alliance. The report was prepared independently by the authors, and may not necessarily reflect the views of the funder or the WHO FCTC Secretariat.

Imperial College London is a global top ten university with a world-class reputation in science, engineering, business and medicine.

Action on Smoking and Health is a health charity working to eliminate the harm caused by tobacco use. For more information see:

Report author, and ASH Board member, Dr Nicholas Hopkinson will be attending the WHO FCTC Conference of the Parties for the launch and will be available for comment. Contact: Deborah Arnott from ASH on +44 (0)7976 935 987.


[1] Zafeiridou, Hopkinson & Voulvoulis. “Cigarette smoking: an assessment of tobacco’s global environmental footprint across its entire supply chain, and policy strategies to reduce it.” Technical report for the WHO FCTC. [for a copy of the embargoed report contact]

The report evaluates the global cigarette supply chain and consumption using established life cycle analysis techniques. It uses available published data plus transparent assumptions based on international best practice where data gaps exist. This will allow estimates to be refined over time as new data become available.

The report is based on a scientific analysis published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology:

Zafeiridou, Hopkinson & Voulvoulis. Cigarette Smoking: An Assessment of Tobacco’s Global Environmental Footprint Across Its Entire Supply Chain. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2018, 52 (15), pp 8087–8094. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b01533.