Does a Tobacco Company’s Environmental Effort Really Matter?

The British American Tobacco (BAT) recently released its 2011 Sustainability Report. The report shows that BAT met its targets for energy, water and waste ahead of schedule. BAT bills itself as the world’s largest tobacco group by global market share. It sells its brands in about 180 markets worldwide, and has over 200 brands in its portfolio. “We make the cigarette chosen by one in eight of the world’s one billion adult smokers,” BAT brags on its website. Last year, BAT’s subsidiary companies sold 705 billion cigarettes.

In full disclosure my grandfather and two great uncles died from lung cancer caused by smoking. I am well aware of the dangers of smoking. My awareness of those dangers causes me to ask a question in regards to BAT’s progress in meeting its environmental goals: What does that really matter given the dangers of smoking?

Let me start by asking another question: Can a tobacco company ever really be considered sustainable? Of course your answer depends on how you define sustainability. A 1987 UN Conference defined sustainable development as those that “meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Considering that definition of sustainability, and that the use of tobacco causes death according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a tobacco company, in my opinion, can never be considered sustainable.

The health effects of smoking go beyond lung cancer

Of course you are aware that smoking causes lung cancer, but you may not know about the other health effects smoking causes. Doing research for this piece, I learned more about the dangers of smoking. Let me give you an overview of what I learned.

“Smoking harms nearly every organ of the body,” the CDC states. The health effects from cigarette smoking account for an estimated 443,000 deaths, or almost one in five deaths, every year in the U.S. Tobacco use causes more deaths than from HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and murders combined. Smoking is estimated to increase the risk of coronary disease by two to four times, and stroke by two to four times. Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.

In addition to lung cancer, smoking causes a slew of other types of cancer, including bladder, cervix, esophagal, and kidney. Speaking of lung cancer, smoking causes an estimated 90 percent of all lung cancer deaths in men and 80 percent of all lung cancer deaths in women.

Smoking harms more than just the smoker’s health. Secondhand smoke is a real health threat. “Over time, secondhand smoke causes death and disease in kids and adults—even if they do not smoke,” the National Cancer Institute declares. NCI goes into the specific health effects of secondhand smoke, which includes cancer. Cigarettes contain over 50 chemicals that are known to cause cancer in adults. In addition to cancer, secondhand smoke causes heart disease, according to NCI, and breathing problems like shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing.

Given the myriad of health effects caused by the use of smoking, I argue that the importance of BAT meeting its environmental goals is not terribly important. I am an ardent environmentalist, so I am not in any way minimizing the importance of environmental stewardship. However, I think it is disingenuous at best for a tobacco company, a merchant of death, to brag about its efforts to help the environment.

What do you think?

Photo credits: Flickr user, Fried Dough

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by