Tobacco and the Environment

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In a report prepared for the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2017 on the environmental impact of the tobacco industry, the authors concluded that tobacco “poses a significant problem for sustainable global development”.1 Indeed: “tobacco can no longer be categorized simply as a health threat – it is a threat to human development as a whole,” the report concluded. Dr Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, the head of the WHO FCTC Secretariat at the time, warned: “The costs of such environmental damage are not always clear, leaving policy-makers often poorly informed on the true consequences of consumption. By omitting or minimizing these true costs, tobacco companies can effectively shift their responsibility to the taxpayer, and thus enjoy a hidden subsidy”.1

This page will summarise the key environmental impacts of the tobacco industry and the relevant academic research. It will consider problems with the reporting of environmental data and the threat posed by next generation products. Tobacco Tactics also hosts specific information on the impact on farming and a detailed analysis of how the industry tries to appropriate the sustainability agenda through promoting its corporate social responsibility programmes and investments on our page on “greenwashing”.

Cradle to grave: a story of environmental harms

From its cultivation to manufacturing, sale and post-consumer effects, the tobacco industry is characterised by the WHO as a threat to the environment. Article 18 of WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) states: “In carrying out their obligations under this Convention, the Parties agree to have due regard to the protection of the environment and the health of persons in relation to the environment in respect of tobacco cultivation and manufacture within their respective territories”.2

The industry has admitted to its negative environmental impact. In its 2006 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report, Imperial Tobacco stated: “Our greatest direct impact on the environment comes from our product manufacturing activities”.3 In its 2019 sustainability report, British American Tobacco (BAT) announced its goal to reduce its scope 1 and 2 emissions by 30% by 2025.4  Scope 1 and 2 emissions refer to those under a company’s “direct control”, and exclude emissions embedded in the purchase of goods and services, transportation and distribution, capital goods, and activities influenced but not controlled by companies.5 In the same report, however, BAT acknowledged that “our supply chain (Scope 3) emissions represent 90% of our total carbon footprint”.4 This division enables tobacco companies to avoid including emissions figures for farmers contracted through third parties. Image 1, a graphic from Japan Tobacco International (JTI)’s 2017 sustainability report, shows the extent of the tobacco product supply chain.

In terms of total, self-reported emissions, individual tobacco companies appear to be relatively on-par with other industries. Philip Morris International (PMI), for example, produces an average of 1.15 million tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) emissions per year; Starbucks at 1.34 million tons CO2e per year) is roughly equivalent. However, the tobacco industry collectively creates as much CO2 emissions annually as an oil company like Exxon.5 Considering there are around 560 cigarette manufacturing facilities globally, producing 6 trillion cigarettes annually, the cumulative environmental impact of the industry cannot be overstated.6

An image showing the tobacco supply chain for Japan Tobacco International's FY2016 sustainability reporting

Image 1: The tobacco product supply chain (JT Group, 2017).7

Farming

The cultivation of tobacco as well as product packaging and manufacture, including cigarette rolling papers and filters, relies on the clearing of woodlands. Tobacco farming is also associated with land degradation and desertification, including soil erosion, reduced soil fertility and productivity and disruption of water cycles. The 2017 WHO report on tobacco and the environment identified 13 countries across the globe where a significant loss of biodiversity associated with tobacco-driven habitat fragmentation and deforestation has occurred.1 An estimated 11.4 million metric tonnes of wood are required annually for curing tobacco leaves, with more wood needed for creating rolling paper and packaging for tobacco products.8 Deforestation, however, is only one of the harms associated with tobacco farming. For more information on the environmental and human health harms posed by tobacco cultivation, visit our page tobacco farming.

Manufacturing

The manufacturing of cigarettes alone has an environmental impact in the following areas:1

  • The thousands of additives, including flavourings and pH modifiers such as ammonia
  • Metals involved in the manufacture and shipping of cigarette-making machines
  • Energy used for manufacturing and distributing tobacco products (coal, gas, etc)
  • Wood pulp and effluent left over from cigarette paper and packaging manufacture
  • Energy required for the creation, extraction, extrusion and processing of cellulose acetate filters
  • Wastewater from the cigarette-making process
  • Energy used in the manufacture and fuelling of trucks, ships and planes to transport tobacco products from production plants to retailers

Due to the lack of external evaluation or reporting requirements, there are not many sources of data on the scope of tobacco industry emissions during manufacturing besides those provided by the industry itself.

Transport

The transnational tobacco industry relies heavily on transport to enable it to operate. Setting aside transport costs associated with employee commuting, an estimation of tobacco industry resource use for transport must include the shipping of products and materials. While regional distribution in tobacco-producing countries is relatively efficient, globalisation of the tobacco supply chain and sales means the tobacco industry relies heavily on resource intensive modes of transport. Tobacco companies will also look to maximise savings by siting plants where most economically favourable and rarely cite environmental concerns as a driver. Typical are these announcements from Imperial Brands regarding factory closures and moves in Europe and Russia. Regulation and tax were the reasons given.910

Packaging

Tobacco products come in a variety of packaging that serves to both protect and advertise the contents. As well as the cartons many are familiar with, smokeless tobacco and other next generation products may rely on plastic packaging. In 2016, the Indian government banned the use of plastics in the packaging of smokeless tobacco products such as pan masala, gutkha and other oral tobacco products.11 Tobacco companies sometimes claim that their products are “eco-friendly” or “green” but there is little evidence to support these assertions.12

Even packaging that relies on wood pulp, including ‘sustainable’ packaging that is used to replace plastic, poses a threat to forests. The EU Single Use Plastics Directive will force tobacco companies to make packaging recyclable by 2035.13 However, there remains little to no financial incentive to do so in the vast majority of LMIC, where the majority of cigarettes are still sold.

Impact of smoke

Once a tobacco product has been manufactured and packaged, its environmental impact has not ended. Besides the demonstrated human and public health harms of first- and second-hand tobacco smoke, smoking also produces negatie environmental health effects. For example, tobacco smoke leaves a long-lasting residue that gathers on surfaces, can build-up over years and is durable after smoking stops in the environment. It can become more toxic as it ages.14151617

Post-consumer waste

Waste from tobacco products includes more than just cigarette butts. Solid tobacco waste in landfills are “contaminants of emerging concern”, according to one study by the US Geological Survey, a scientific agency of the US government.18 Non-recyclable, littered and resource-intensive packaging, and the cellulose acetate filters found in cigarettes and heated tobacco products (HTP) sticks, which are non-biodegradable, also pose significant environmental harm. Discarding cigarettes into the environment remains one of the most socially-acceptable forms of littering.19 When filters do eventually degrade up to 10 years later,20 they break down into smaller plastic pieces, enabling the leaching of some of the 4,000-7,000 chemicals (including at least 50 carcinogens) contained in a cigarette into the ground of water.121 A US Environmental Protection Agency study found that butts soaked in water (fresh and salt) for 96 hours killed half of exposed test fish.22 Cotinine () has been detected in groundwater and in reclaimed water used to irrigate fields in America,23 “underscoring the potential of humans and the environment to be exposed to tobacco waste products via many environmental routes”.24 Although cotinine is not itself a toxic chemical, these studies underline the risk posed penetrance of chemicals into local water sources from tobacco product waste being discarded in the environment.

Resource use

Tobacco companies utilise considerable quantities of resources, often from non-sustainable resources, to manufacture, distribution and advertise their products. Cigarette manufacturing alone involves the growing, shredding, assembling, and processing of tobacco leaves; the production of rolling papers, filters and packaging; and manufacturing and logistics equipment. All of these steps use resources like carbon fuels, water and wood.

To give an idea of the impact, one study estimated that for every 300 cigarettes produced (roughly 1.5 cartons), one tree is required to cure the tobacco leaf alone.25 Innovative manufacturing practices enable the tobacco industry to produce more cigarettes and other tobacco products. The Dry Ice Expanded Tobacco (DIET) process, for example, reduces the amount of tobacco needed per cigarette by pumping high-pressure CO2 to fill tobacco with air. It cuts manufacturing costs but increases resource demand.1 Estimates of the tobacco industry’s resource use appear in the table below. The dates associated with particular figures vary due to inconsistency of tobacco industry reporting practices.

Tables giving data on water consumption, energy use and CO2 emissions

Reported water consumption used during tobacco products manufacturing

Reported yearly energy use for some of the largest tobacco companies

wdt_ID Company Gigawatt hours/year Kilowatt hours per million cigarettes/$/£ revenue
1 Altria (2016) (Altria 2017) 1316 (Altria 2017) Not reported
2 BAT (2016) (British American Tobacco 2018) 2360 (276 renewable) 2911 per million cigs
3 Imperial (2016) (Imperial Brands 2017) 880 137 664 per £million
4 JTI (Japan Tobacco Incorporated 2017) 2632 (2016) (665 renewable) Not reported
5 PMI 923 (2017) (PMI 2017b) 107 500 per US$ million (2012) (Philip Morris International 2017b)
6 RAI (2015) (Reynolds American International 2015) 904 84 639 per US$ million
7 Global total 16 164

Reported CO2e emissions from tobacco manufacturing

Table source: Hendlin, Y.H., Bialous, S.A. The environmental externalities of tobacco manufacturing: A review of tobacco industry reportingAmbio 49, 17–34 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-019-01148-3

Reporting the data

Attempting to calculate and analyse the full environmental impact of the tobacco industry in detail is complex, and beyond the scope of this page. It is worth noting that one of the problems is data on this is hard to obtain beyond that which is disclosed by the industry itself. This makes costing the clean-up and determining who is responsible for carrying it out and footing the bill difficult.

One independent study by Swedish environmental sociologists, Professor Linda Soneryd and Professor Ylva Uggla concluded that: “By not including this environmental impact as damage for which the tobacco companies should pay, governments are inadvertently subsidizing tobacco production”.26 Even where the data is reported by tobacco companies, there may be strategic reasons how this is done. Soneryd and Uggla add: “Providing data does not necessarily indicate a willingness to help – in fact it could be interpreted as an industry move to stave off regulation that would require them to adhere to far more stringent, external environmental standards and practices”.26

A particular example of this data black hole is the China National Tobacco Company. It produces 44% of all the world’s cigarettes, but doesn’t provide any publicly available environmental data. Roughly half of the global environmental impact of tobacco is therefore unaccounted for. Even when Altria, PMI, Reynolds American, JTI, Imperial and BAT do include environmental impact estimates, these tend to be opaque and inconsistent.

One reason for this opacity on impact is that, according to a UN Environmental Programme report, the tobacco industry would not be profitable if they paid for the environmental impacts of their manufacturing.2728 For more information on the problems associated with the tobacco industry environmental impact reporting, see our page on greenwashing.

Next Generation Products

The data on the environmental impact of cigarettes remains fragmentary and that of more regionally-specific products such as snus or waterpipes even more so. Another glaring absence is electronic nicotine (ENDS) and non-nicotine delivery systems (ENNDS), also known as next generation products (NGPs). One reason for the lack of data on the environmental impact of NGPs is due to regulatory inconsistency. However, e-cigarettes have been described as a “looming environmental threat”1929 by environmental health and tobacco control experts, where the environmental costs may be as or even more severe than cigarettes per unit.1530

Some of the areas where these products pose novel environmental impacts are:

  • Variability in chemical composition of e-liquids depending on their origin;
  • Elements that not reusable or recyclable – cartridges are specifically disposable rather than reusable or refillable: “While independent ENDS/ENNDS manufacturers tend to sell refillable “open” system e-cigarettes, the transnational tobacco companies have so far tended to sell throw-away, one-closed “closed” system products, presumably to boost sales via repeat customers”;1
  • Metal sourcing and disposal for smartphone-like interior components, and potential environmental contamination (when improperly disposed of); and5
  • Additional plastic components, including product casing, cap and insertable components.31

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes show some potential to make companies, including the tobacco industry, take responsibility for the disposal and waste of their products. For more information on this and other policies with the potential to mitigate the environmental impacts of tobacco, visit our page on greenwashing.

Tobacco Tactics Resources

Relevant Links

TCRG Research

References

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