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"Tobacco growing destroys forests, damages soil, and depletes water supplies, while manufacturing contributes to the production of toxic waste," states a new WHO report. (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Big Tobacco Is 'Poisoning Our Planet,' Says WHO

"Long before these deadly products reach the consumer," states a report from the U.N. health agency, "they already leave a trail of destruction in their wake."

Andrea Germanos

Similar to the harm and death smoking brings to individuals, the World Health Health Organization said Tuesday that the practices of the tobacco industry are wreaking environmental havoc and degradation around the globe.

"The environmental consequences of tobacco use move it from being a human problem to a planetary problem."

The United Nations agency detailed the destruction—including vast deforestation and toxic waste—in a new report released on World No Tobacco Day.

"Tobacco products are the most littered item on the planet, containing over 7000 toxic chemicals, which leech into our environment when discarded," said Dr. Ruediger Krech, WHO's director of health promotion, in a statement.

"Roughly 4.5 trillion cigarette filters pollute our oceans, rivers, city sidewalks, parks, soil, and beaches every year," he said.

Entitled Tobacco: Poisoning Our Planet, the publication notes that the adverse public health impacts of tobacco are well known, turning focus instead on the "vast and growing" problem of the industry's impacts on planetary health.

"Long before these deadly products reach the consumer, they already leave a trail of destruction in their wake," the report states. "Tobacco growing destroys forests, damages soil, and depletes water supplies, while manufacturing contributes to the production of toxic waste."

"Tobacco growing is resource-intensive and requires heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers, which contribute to soil degradation," the report states. "These chemicals escape into the aquatic environment, contaminating lakes, rivers, and drinking water"

An additional environmental problem is the amount of water needed for tobacco production. According to the report, roughly 22 billion tons of water are used each year for that purpose—an amount equivalent to 15 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Further problematic is the amount of land cleared for tobacco cultivation and production. The report pins blame on tobacco farming for about 5% deforestation globally, with roughly 200,000 hectares of land cleared for growing and curing each year.

The industry is also a major carbon polluter. Manufacturing and distribution, including the production of cigarette papers, filters, and packaging, generate carbon emissions equivalent to three million transatlantic flights, the report states. Consumers' use of cigarettes also releases greenhouse gases, as tobacco smoke has methane and nitrous oxides in addition to CO2 and other pollutants. 

E-cigarettes are also criticized for their impacts. "Little is documented about the harmful effects on the environment brought about by the production of these devices, but the disposal of e-cigarette cartridges and batteries represents a major environmental concern," the report states. "The majority of plastic e-cigarette liquid cartridges are not reusable or recyclable and end up in gutters, streets, and waterways "

The WHO publication also takes issue with "duplicitous tactics... used by the tobacco industry to greenwash its reputation and construct the image of a sustainable and eco-friendly industry."

Such tactics include misleading cigarette packaging labels of "organic" or "natural." They also include social investment schemes like funding health systems or disaster relief efforts, often in low- and middle income countries, through which the firms seek "recognition for the industry contributions to the public good."

"The industry's self-reported data," however, is "intended to mislead the public and sustain its operations in tobacco-growing countries and lack essential information on the sheer size of destruction imposed on the environment and communities," according to the report.

The document concludes with a call-to-action for a variety of stakeholders, including for the general public to raise awareness of industry greenwashing and for farmers to switch to environmentally friendly crops.

Policymakers are called on to "impose the policy principle of extended producer responsibility on the tobacco industry to hold it accountable for the cost of cleaning up tobacco product waste." Policymakers must also enact an environment tax on manufacturers and consumers across the supply chain to account for carbon emissions and other pollutants.

"The environmental consequences of tobacco use move it from being a human problem to a planetary problem," states the WHO.

"Tobacco can no longer be categorized simply as a health threat," the agency adds. "It is a threat to human development as a whole."

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