Skip to main content

Global impact of tobacco

Britain played a major role in the emergence of the global tobacco epidemic. Tobacco, a product native to the Americas, is labour intensive to grow. The British solved the problem by using slaves to produce tobacco on its plantations in Virginia, and tobacco soon became its most lucrative cash crop in the north American colonies. The British and American transnational tobacco companies, which still dominate the global market today, grew out of this trade.

Global impact on health

As the tobacco epidemic is declining in many high income countries, Big Tobacco has shifted its focus to emerging markets to maintain its profits. There are around 1.1 billion
smokers worldwide and smoking killed 7.7 million people in 2019 according to the global burden of tobacco. Around 80% of the 1.1 billion smokers worldwide live in low and middle income countries (LMICs).

On current trends it is estimated that smoking will kill over a billion people in the 21st Century most of these in LMICs.

British American Tobacco is dominant in Commonwealth countries, particularly in Africa. The ASH report BAT’s African Footprint covers the first 100 years up to 2008, with British American Tobacco Uncovered updating the story to the present day.

Global impact on the environment

Big Tobacco uses a strategy of ‘greenwashing’ to market an environmentally friendly image, but the truth is very different.

Tobacco growing and consumption are concentrated in the developing world where the health, economic, and environmental burden is greatest.Tobacco competes with essential commodities for resources, and places significant pressures on the health of our planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants. For a detailed analysis see Cigarette Smoking: An assessment of tobacco’s global environmental footprint across its entire supply chain.

The theme of the WHO’s World No Tobacco Day on 31st May 2022 is Tobacco’s Threat to our environment. Around 3.5 million hectares of land are used for tobacco growing, which degrades the soil and contributes to the deforestation of 200 000 hectares a year. Furthermore:

  • Tobacco production depletes the planet of water, fossil fuel and metal resources.
  • Globalization of the tobacco supply chain and sales means the tobacco industry relies heavily on resource-intensive modes of transport.
  • 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered annually across the globe, generating 1.69 billion pounds of toxic waste into the air, water and soil.