The Truth About the Environmental Impact of the Tobacco Industry


The detrimental health effects of tobacco are well-known. However, the industry’s environmental impact often goes unnoticed thanks to adept greenwashing tactics. As explained in this article, “big tobacco” firms present themselves as sustainable while continuing manufacturing practices that negatively impact the environment. In fact, the production process of tobacco alone emits over 80 million tons of carbon dioxide and uses more than 22 billion cubic meters of water. This means that one cigarette has the potential to generate as much as 14 grams of CO2 equivalent during its entire lifespan.

These statistics are devastating as is. Yet, this is merely the tip of the iceberg when examining the tobacco industry’s overall impact on our planet. Below, we take a closer look at the hard truths.

How does the tobacco industry harm the environment?

The process of producing tobacco, from farming to drying and curing, poses severe consequences for the environment. Tobacco plants have substantial nutrient requirements, which is why new locations for tobacco cultivation are generated every two to three years. This equates to 600 million trees cut down annually to produce cigarettes, with one tree producing about 15 packs. 

Since the 1970s, around 1.5 billion hectares of primarily tropical forests have been destroyed to make way for tobacco fields. Burning these forests for tobacco growing produces greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide. This contributes to up to 20% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, the process doesn’t end there. Following harvest, a minimum of 8 million tons of firewood is still required for flue-curing. This method is utilized to dry Virginia tobacco, the primary component of widely consumed American Blend cigarettes. WHO calculates that approximately 8.05 million tonnes of wood are annually dedicated solely to the process of flue-curing, accounting for 2-3% of global deforestation.

When adding the distribution process into the mix, the tobacco industry generates carbon emissions equivalent to roughly three million transatlantic flights, significantly contributing to global warming. This makes the act of consuming tobacco harmful and inherently unethical. To understand this further, it’s important to take a look at the composition of cigarettes and current trends surrounding the usage of tobacco. 

What are cigarettes made of?

Despite their fibrous appearance, cigarette butts are actually made of plasticized cellulose acetate. This is a material that, contrary to its marketing ploy, takes anywhere from 18 months to a decade to break down into smaller, persistent micro-plastic pieces. As noted in our previous write-up, the harm is not confined to longevity. These butts contain various toxic compounds that leach into the soil and water when littered. These compounds include notorious substances such as nicotine, arsenic, lead, copper, chromium, cadmium, and poly-aromatic hydrocarbons. 

As a result of this leaching, wildlife loses their natural habitats and food sources. This disruption upsets the delicate balance of biodiversity within an ecosystem, creating a negative cycle that degrades the quality of our soil, air, and water.

What is the role of tobacco users? 

In the web of environmental degradation, the role of tobacco users amplifies the harm of the industry. This study identified as many as 40% of women and 30% of men that still believe cigarette butts are disposable, causing smokers to continue littering 47% of the cigarette butts they smoke. Today, cigarette butts are the most littered item globally, with only one-third of cigarette filters discarded correctly despite more than a trillion being used per year.

This lack of awareness extends its consequences to second and third-hand smoking. Cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 compounds. Over 60 of these are carcinogens, with examples such as acetaldehyde, acrylonitrile, and benzene. Instead of the idea that this smoke simply disappears into the air, the particles can actually settle onto surfaces or textiles. These can remain for up to several months, or even for several years in an enclosed space. 

What is being done?

Thankfully, the growing awareness of the industry’s environmental impact has prompted efforts to minimize harm, both in production and consumption. Smokeless alternatives have risen in popularity, making use of more sustainable production practices and materials to reduce their environmental impact. The catalog of spit-free nicotine pouches on this site poses a prime example of this phenomenon. These pouches are tucked under the lips for the chemical to be absorbed by the body, creating no by-product that’s released into the environment. Furthermore, popular brands like VELO and On! set certain targets to address climate change, from making all their plastic packaging reusable by 2025 to using only renewable energy by 2030. ZYN, meanwhile, uses a vegan fiber base to reduce its environmental damage when thrown away. 

Recognizing the shift in consumer preferences, even traditional tobacco products are undergoing transformations to cater to smokers who may be reluctant to shift to smokeless alternatives. The ‘Vape For The Planet’ campaign by INNOKIN detailed here describes how vapers can make more environmentally friendly choices with their Platform and Endura series, which are designed to last for 1-3 years of regular use. The company even provides solutions for disposable vape users with their INNOBAR F3 and Aquios Bar models, which use a reinforced card shell design to boast a 95% reduction in plastic.

Otherwise, more policymakers are doing their part in initiating stricter regulations surrounding tobacco usage. Certain states, like Florida, have initiated stricter regulations regarding the disposal of cigarette butts in public beaches and parks. These measures aim to encourage smokers to transition to smokeless alternatives such as pouches, gums, lozenges, or patches. 

Meanwhile, other places like New York and Boulder County are attempting to control vape disposal, as expounded on in this report. Federal environmental law states that e-cigarettes containing hazardous materials like nicotine and lithium aren’t supposed to go in the trash. Hence, New York sponsors waste-collection events where vapers can dispose of their used e-cigarettes, whereas Boulder County actively recycles its batteries and components. More measures can be expected as disposable e-cigarettes continue to grow in popularity.

At the end of the day, the growth in available options means that there are more opportunities for smokers and other tobacco users to become more responsible consumers. With a more conscious shift towards sustainability, there is hope for a greener future. To start inspiring change, check out our other write-ups on EcoFreek. 

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