To Smoke or Not to Smoke? That is the Environmental Question

Girl Smoking

By Thomas (T.J.) Franklin

For a minute, consider the environmental impacts of worldwide tobacco usage instead of the health risks that are associated with it. As a former smoker, the thought never crossed my mind to explore the cumulative effects of my choice to light up. When I became aware that over 5 trillion cigarettes per year are manufactured for human consumption, I felt this was worth exploring.

For years, deglamorization ads about the dangers of smoking have blanketed U.S. media. As a fourth grader, I still remember real human lungs from cadavers that were brought into class, demonstrating a stunning difference between a healthy non-smoker, and one who had chosen to smoke for years.

Today, society continues to be inundated via radio and television through the CDC’s current ad campaign, just to make sure we still understand the health impacts. To both the CDC and nation’s credit, the U.S. has enjoyed a significant reduction in smokers over the past 50 years. But as the global population is set to hit an estimated 9 billion by 2050, will the drop of tobacco users be sufficient to curb worldwide resource demands, especially factoring in the potential resource strains on water, food, and arable land?

A pile of fuelwood set aside for tobacco curing (drying).
A pile of fuelwood set aside for tobacco curing (drying).

Regardless if you’re a user or not, many likely overlook the detrimental impacts of tobacco from the lens of “environment” and “sustainability.” But if you were aware that tobacco production was linked to deforestation, impacts of pesticide use, environmental degradation, fires and litter/pollution, would that change how you personally view it?

For example, if you were aware that 60 million trees were cut or burnt down each year to support “big tobacco,” would that surprise you? What if lands that were used for tobacco farming were repurposed, and could subsequently feed 10 to 20 million people yearly, would that spark your interest?

Thankfully, we largely understand the detrimental effects of throwing cigarette butts on our beaches and roads (again, ad campaigns), but I think we remain blind to the rest of the story.

The tobacco industry has traditionally been a deeply rooted American narrative. But today, China and India are the two largest consumers and producers of the plant in the world. In fact, the Chinese consume 38 percent of the world’s cigarettes! The World Bank and other NGOs are pushing initiatives to educate governments on the negative social and economic impacts of smoking. One study reveals that smoking prevention and cessation efforts must be a primary focus, especially in countries like China. But government-owned companies like China National Tobacco Corp. that have such a considerable economic stronghold will be hard to convince.

Tobacco myths

Many myths exist about tobacco that should be set straight. One of the most intriguing is that tobacco is mostly an issue that relates to affluent people in affluent countries. The fact is that the true victims (either those who use or support production) are those that live in the lowest income categories. Another myth is that tobacco is the only way for low-income farmers to make a living. The truth is that sugar cane, bananas, coconut, pineapples and cotton are all suitable replacements that could be planted in the same locations to support an equivalent lifestyle. Whether it is by choice or by feelings of no other alternative, many stay the course and grow tobacco. Unfortunately, they become by-products of affluent societies and industry.

The issues revolving around worldwide tobacco production will continue to be complicated. What should be hoped for is that less people will become addicted to this dangerous drug. It is difficult to ignore the health risks, but it would be foolish to further turn a blind eye to what the tobacco industry is doing to the environment.

The zig-zag patterns across the road resulting from deforestation in Brazil can be seen from space.
The zig-zag patterns across the road resulting from deforestation in Brazil can be seen from space.

“Wood” you consider the following about tobacco production?

Tobacco production, especially in developing countries, uses tremendous amounts of wood, thereby becoming a silent partner in worldwide deforestation.

Have you ever seen the sobering Rain Forest landscape transformations through time-lapse satellite imagery? I think it’s human nature to overlook changes on monthly or even yearly scales, especially if the change is small. But when evaluated over a larger span of time, the changes can be staggering, almost jaw-dropping. There has been serious discussion lately about highly demanded commodities such as palm oil and soybeans and their associated contribution to deforestation. But for some reason, worldwide tobacco demand does not share that same detrimental linkage. The tobacco industry’s contribution might not be as compelling, but surely this change will be significant if left unchecked for many decades. Remember the time lapse example!

Here are the facts. Depending on what resource you find online, roughly 200,000 hectares of forests are cut-down each year from tobacco producing activities. Farmers, mostly in developing countries, clear lands for planting-with little to no regulation. Wood from nearby forests are then burned for the production of tobacco through the process of curing (or drying).

Additionally, these curing facilities (barns) are made of wood, and the process of flue-cured tobacco requires consistent amounts of heat (about 10 days worth) necessary to transform to properties of the tobacco plant. Since Virginia Tobacco is many times flue-cured and the plant of choice, global demands are typically high because of its high sugar content and nicotine levels. Because of this demand, farmers turn to wood for burning, regardless if the land is needed to be cleared for planting or not. So as you can see, there is a wicked multiplicative process at work here.

Global market demands (mostly from the Chinese) continues to be the crux of the issue. Demand drives supply, which then trickles down to farmers living in developing countries. In their defense, they are simply trying to put food on the table for their families and make an honest living. In places like Tanzania, this scenario is reality. Other locations around the world where deforestation seems to be targeted are the following: southern Africa, southeast Asia, South America, and the Caribbean.

Tobacco’s strategic dichotomy: One goal, two different directions

Anti Smoking Ads
An anti-smoking campaign ad from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In order to meet worldwide goals for reduction in tobacco consumption, and in turn halt deforestation, regulation and education must occur simultaneously.

The more I’ve attempted to understand the various strategies to limit tobacco use, the more opaque solutions become. I previously noted that many programs simply focus on social and economic components of the problem; largely ignoring the environmental issues that tobacco creates. The more literature I read about two entirely different problems (socioeconomic versus environmental), the more interconnectedness there is. I’ve thus come to the conclusion that it will take both educational investments and environmental regulation in developing countries to battle this worldwide problem.

Since 2010, the Obama administration has looked at this topic and is urging other countries to follow suit. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as other NGOs are working to combat the tobacco industry’s increased advertising campaigns in developing countries, because they know that is where tobacco’s biggest customer base is located. Studies show that low income, low educated, rural persons are most likely to use tobacco. Therefore, the following policies are recommended:

  • Introduce and inject mass media campaigns into developing countries. Help them understand the dangers of smoking. Use strategies to De-glamorize or urge people to think before they use. Start this process when they are young!
  • Smoke-free laws. This will be more useful in cities or places of business where smoking is allowed indoors. 680,000 of the 6 million die annually of secondhand smoke.
  • Tobacco cessation options. Offer outlets to help people quit. Nicotine is an addicting drug, so this resource is crucial.
  • Restrict advertising and promotions for tobacco. This must be done fairly since tobacco industry is a business, but reductions could be made.

Because of the lack of international regulation, and the temptation from developing countries to over-exploit their natural resources for economic gain, the conundrum of deforestation must be addressed as a collaborative effort (government, NGO, industry leaders, etc.). Leaders from each of these sectors must develop a set of strategies that continue to meet each other’s goals.

For instance, if demand for tobacco can be somehow curbed, the law of supply and demand would tell us that there would be little-to-no incentive to chop down forestland. If taxes were raised or the price of cigarettes became more valuable, a larger percent of people would quit, while tobacco companies would continue to generate revenues from sales. If governments can educate farmers to shift from tobacco to tea or cotton, there will still be economic viability for these people. To be effective, these and many other policies must be executed at all levels and with multiple participating parties.

If previously mentioned policies are too difficult to embrace, there must be robust forest conservation programs within targeted countries where tobacco growing is most prevalent. In lands that have been cut down, there must also be afforestation programs aimed at recovering the land. Even at the local or community level, there could be incentives to better manage forest lands that are still standing.

Image credits: myclimate, NASA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Virginia Tech CLiGS

This blog series, written by graduate students and faculty at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), focuses on lessons learned about the leadership and innovation strategies that business, government, and civil society stakeholders are using to influence important environmental and natural resource systems, including water, food, climate, energy, and biodiversity.