Tobacco industries should clean up their mess

Thursday, June 2nd, 2022 10:39 | By
Workers go about their work at a tobacco market in Harare, capital of Zimbabwe. (Xinhua)

We celebrated World No Tobacco Day, a global event to make an effort to minimise the use of tobacco, on Tuesday under a theme chosen by WHO – Tobacco Threat to our Environment. The campaign is aimed at raising awareness among the public on the environmental impact of tobacco, from cultivation, production, and distribution to disposal. It also aims to expose the tobacco industry’s efforts to “greenwash” its reputation and products by marketing itself as environmentally friendly.

Tobacco doesn’t just negatively impact the health of individuals; it also endangers the health of the environment. When e-cigarettes and cigarette waste is not disposed of properly, it makes its way into the environment where it ends up polluting water, air and land with toxic chemicals, heavy metals and residual nicotine.

Tobacco is a very sensitive plant that requires a lot of care. It’s therefore often grown as a monoculture, leaving the soil on which it has been cultivated completely drained of nutrients. It is also not a very resilient crop; it is extremely vulnerable to diseases and pests, which is why it’s evolutionary developed nicotine as a natural pesticide. Funnily enough, nicotine was used as both a pesticide and an herbicide until recently when it was replaced with more effective chemical compounds.

The tobacco industries are responsible for producing much more than tobacco products and are guilty of creating hundreds of thousands of pounds of cigarettes and e-cigarettes waste each year. Regrettably, tobacco also kills up to half of its users annually and is currently the world’s single biggest cause of preventable death.

As we celebrated World No Tobacco Day, 2022 what is our take home?

One, tobacco growing endangers our environment and we should not fall for the tobacco industry’s attempt to try and distract us from its environmental harms by greenwashing their products. This is through donations to sustainability initiatives and reporting on environmental “standards” they often set themselves.

Two, the tobacco industry is making profit by destroying the environment and needs to be held accountable for the environmental destruction and made to pay for the waste and damages, including to recover the cost of collecting these wastes.

Three, we need to be aware of the environmental toxicity and dangers posed by discarding cigarettes and e-cigarettes. We should encourage tobacco users to quit as the best way to protect the environment from tobacco product waste.

Four, we need to encourage and help tobacco farmers to switch to alternative crops. Governments should support this transition especially those with low skills and/or tied by contracts with the tobacco industries. To incentivise this, it is important to provide farmers with necessary knowledge and skills and assist them with access to tools that will help them improve their productivity.

Finally, the most effective way of reducing the supply of tobacco products would be to reduce the demand for them. Demand reduction measures should be aimed at raising awareness on the individual and environmental impacts of tobacco use. This will ultimately change consumer behaviors and play a critical role in tobacco control strategies.

In conclusion, combining the environmental cost with proven detrimental health, social and economic impacts, makes tobacco incompatible with other global public health concerns. Tobacco products are not just a threat to your health, they threaten the environment and trap those most in need into caring for this sensitive product that needs lots of caring. As we face global challenges to preserve and sustain our future, the tobacco industries need to face up to their mess and clean it up.

— The writer is a substance use prevention advocate

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