Tobacco: Threats to the environment, economy, and public health

The tobacco epidemic is one of the most substantial public health risks humankind has ever faced, with the deaths of more than 8 million people globally in a year. More than 7 million of those deaths result from direct tobacco use. At the same time, around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.

The Participant States of the World Health Organization created World No Tobacco Day in 1987 to pull global awareness of the tobacco epidemic and the preventable death and disease it causes. In 1987, the World Health Assembly passed Resolution WHA40.38, asking for April 7, 1988, to be “a world no-smoking day.” In 1988, Resolution WHA42.19 was passed, calling out to celebrate World No Tobacco Day every year on May 31.

This year, the theme of World No Tobacco Day 2022 is “Protect the environment, “highlighting that, throughout its lifecycle, tobacco pollutes the planet and damages the health of all people.

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Researchers revealed that cigarette filters are prepared from cellulose acetate. This plastic only degrades under severe biological circumstances, such as when filters collect in sewage. In practice, cigarette butts are thrown on streets, offices, and parks do not biodegrade. In most favorable conditions, it can take at least nine months for a cigarette butt to degrade. The sun may break down cigarette butts, but only into smaller pieces of waste which dilute into water/soil.

It is also proved that cigarette waste can pollute soil, beaches, and waterways. Research studies have also shown that cigarette waste is harmful to wildlife. Cigarette butts cause pollution by being carried, as overspill, to drains and from there to rivers, beaches, and oceans. Pilot studies show that organic compounds (such as nicotine, pesticide residues, and metal) percolate from cigarette butts into marine ecosystems, becoming acutely toxic to fish and microorganisms.

Tobacco budding, business, and nasty water, soil, beaches, parks, and streets with chemicals, toxic waste, cigarette butts, and microplastic waste. It is no secret that tobacco negatively affects the health of human beings. It also threatens the health of the environment. It is well established that cigarette butts cannot be disposed of properly; it costs the environment by contaminating water, air, and land with toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and residual nicotine. An estimated 766,571 metric tons of cigarette butts adversely impact the environment every year.

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Research has found that developing tobacco promotes deforestation, especially in the developing world like Pakistan. Deforestation for tobacco plantations promotes soil degradation and “failing yields,” or the capacity for the land to support the growth of any other crops or vegetation. The tobacco industry chops down approximately 600 million trees every year. On average, each tree produces enough paper for 15 packs of cigarettes. The most adverse impacts of deforestation in Pakistan are flooding, climatic changes, land sliding, land degradation, soil erosion, and desertification. The tobacco industry’s negative impact on deforestation also leads to climate change, desertification, fewer crops, flooding, increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and many problems for indigenous people.

Every year, Pakistan loses 42,000 hectares or 2.1 percent of its forests. Authorities consider that forestation is the only way to alleviate the impacts of global warming. In their opinion, there was no doubt that the water is the element essential for life and that deforestation deprives us of this necessity with each passing day. The sustained increase in tobacco cultivation takes its toll on the soil. Because tobacco drained the soil of its nutrients, only about three successful growing seasons could occur on a plot of land. Then the land had to lie fallow for three years before the soil could be used again. This created a considerable drive for new farmland. This tobacco cultivation has been found to destroy soil fertility and groundwater resources. It badly impacts the country’s economy and environment.

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The tobacco industry, the merchants of death, is generating revenue by damaging the environment and needs to be held responsible for the environmental devastation and made to pay for the waste and damages, including recovering the cost of collecting these wastes.

In 2018, the world’s six largest cigarette manufacturers made profits (before income taxes) of more than US$55 billion. Such massive profits are possible because the tobacco companies have very high-profit margins on their sales. The net income declared by Pakistan Tobacco Company in 2019 was 80.09 million US$, which increased to 117.2 US$ with a gross profit of 223.06 million US$. Interestingly, there has been no tax increase in the country in the last five years, but TI is getting an enormous rise in its profit.1 (Whereas Philip Morris (Pakistan) Limited (PMPKL) posted a profit after tax of PKR 2,307 million for the year ended December 31, 2021, compared to a profit after tax of PKR 1,765 million for the same period the prior years.

Tobacco Industries ought to be taken accountable for the tremendous volumes of waste that their products generate and to facilitate the environmentally safe disposal of their products. This wouldn’t be still not too late to handle the situation seriously in the country, and appropriate strong regulations coupled with financial penalties to reduce the amount of waste are needed to reduce the negative environmental consequences of their products. Furthermore, there is a strong need for advocacy and awareness of the environmental toxicity and dangers of discarding cigarette waste into landfills. Encouraging smokers to quit using these products altogether is the best way to protect the environment from tobacco product waste.

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This Opinion was contributed by Dr. Ziauddin Islam, Country Lead Tobacco Control, Vital Strategies. The writer is Former Technical Head TCC of Ministry of NHSRC, Former Focal Person of Govt of Pakistan for WHOs FCTC, Health Economist, Global Public Health Physician, Research Scholar Institute of Tobacco Control, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore USA. He can be reached @ziauddinislam on Twitter.

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