On World No Tobacco Day, WHO Highlights Broader Impact on Environment

The dangers of tobacco to users are well-known, but today the World Health Organization (WHO) is taking advantage of World No Tobacco Day to raise awareness of how tobacco impacts non-users, the environment, and society.

The dangers of tobacco to users are well-known, but today the World Health Organization (WHO) is taking advantage of World No Tobacco Day to raise awareness of how tobacco impacts non-users, the environment, and society.

According to the WHO’s No Tobacco Day press release, tobacco kills over 7 million people each year. The estimated yearly costs of tobacco arising from healthcare services and lost productivity total more than $1.4 trillion worldwide. Tobacco also poses a serious threat to the environment, which makes it even more important for governments to take urgent steps to limit the use of tobacco.

“Tobacco exacerbates poverty, reduces economic productivity, contributes to poor household food choices, and pollutes indoor air,” WHO director Margaret Chan, MD, said in the statement. “But by taking robust tobacco control measures, governments can safeguard their countries' futures by protecting tobacco users and non-users from these deadly products, generating revenues to fund health and other social services, and saving their environments from the ravages tobacco causes.”

The environmental impacts of tobacco are explained in greater detail in a WHO report published today, which summarizes the damage done to the earth by the tobacco industry at every step, from farming to manufacturing to consumption. For instance, it describes the large amounts of pesticides used in tobacco farming and how plant cultivation has contributed to deforestation. There are significant health risks to the laborers who harvest the tobacco plants and manufacture the products, and these processes result in high levels of energy use, water consumption, and chemical emissions.

According to the report, the danger to the environment does not vanish when the tobacco product reaches the consumer. Tobacco smoke releases carcinogens and greenhouse gases into the air, while two-thirds of the 15 billion cigarettes sold each day are discarded in the environment. Chemicals like nicotine can leach into water, killing exposed fish.

“All in all, a cigarette butt may look like the end of the damage wrought by a cigarette, but there is still a way to go in addressing post-consumer waste clean-up and responsible disposal,” the report states.

The tobacco industry also has some important sociological implications for manufacturers and consumers, as well as their family members. Some children in farming families miss school to work in tobacco fields, while the poorest households spend over 10% of their income on tobacco products, limiting the resources available for more urgent needs.

There are some potential solutions, particularly government-initiated measures, that can help curb the harms of tobacco. The press release states that, along with stricter advertising regulations and smoke-free indoor policies, taxation is “one of the least used, but most effective” methods of controlling tobacco use. Increasing taxes, for example, would not only discourage the purchase of tobacco products, but also provide countries with more financial resources for development, even if tobacco use remains a barrier to that goal.

“Tobacco-related death and illness are drivers of poverty, leaving households without breadwinners, diverting limited household resources to purchase tobacco products rather than food and school materials, and forcing many people to pay for medical expenses,” said Douglas Bettcher, MD, PhD, director of WHO’s department for the prevention of noncommunicable diseases. "But action to control it will provide countries with a powerful tool to protect their citizens and futures.”