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

2 responses

  1. Gina-Marie,In response, I’d say “Of course it matters!”While we’re doing full disclosure, I should declare that I’m a non-smoker; in fact I’m an ardent anti-smoker: I’ve never smoked and never will, I find cigarettes repugnant and I got my gran to stop  smoking through pester power when I was about nine. None of my family or friends work in the tobacco industry, and I have no vested interest in the sector nor in BAT. But to say that all other aspects of corporate responsibility should be ignored because its products can be harmful to users seems, to me, a very one-sided and emotive view. (I don’t believe any company is “truly sustainable”, nor is ever likely to be, because they all consume energy and natural resources to some degree.)Your article goes to great lengths to highlight the damage smoking can do to human health, and I wouldn’t argue with any of the science. It’s been proved beyond doubt that those who smoke are exposing themselves – and those around them – to all sorts of unpleasant medical consequences, even death. So we agree there.But are you arguing that for companies whose products have an inherent risk involved in their use, other responsibilities don’t matter until they are either banned or made completely safe? (And when is that ever likely to happen? You can choke on a pretzel, you know…) Should Ford abandon its well-regarded Blueprint for Sustainability because people are injured and killed in road traffic accidents involving its vehicles? Should Diageo focus purely on combatting alcohol abuse and binge drinking, to the detriment of everything else, just because a minority don’t consume its products responsibly? And where do you draw the line: BAE Systems? Knife manufacturers? Gun makers?Product responsibility is an important element of corporate responsibility, and engagement with customers on the safe use of any product is essential, whether you make cigarettes, or motorbikes, or chainsaws. In the case of BAT, this is undoubtedly true – its product all carry health warnings – and it is working to make ‘safer’ cigarettes that do less harm. Another important aspect is that people choose to be BAT customers, and have the right to decide whether they smoke or not. (That said, I’m also delighted that recent legislation in the UK means I can go to a restaurant, or take a flight, or even go to work without being forced to participate in passive smoking. I have rights too.)But beyond product responsibility (regarding both use and in marketing), a company like BAT has a myriad other economic, environmental and social impacts, from creating employment for thousands of people, providing a market for its suppliers and supporting local communities through to reducing its carbon and water footprints, improving waste management and its role in ecosystem and biodiversity services. How can any of these be considered to be “not terribly important”? They are all important, to some degree or other, just as they are to a food retailer, a telecomms business or a mining company.Talking of disingenuous, I think to say that this particular merchant of death (your words, not mine) “brags about its efforts to help the environment” is exactly that – disingenuous. I’d actually say that BAT’s reporting is anything but bragging – I’d argue that it’s actually more balanced than most. It acknowledges the challenges and hostility it faces quite openly, it answers difficult stakeholder questions honestly and the need for reducing the harm done by its products gets its first of many mentions in the Chief Exec’s overview.So in summary, I’d rather companies like BAT didn’t make products that can kill the people who use them, and luckily, I don’t think there’ll always be a market for fags, given the way legislation is affecting everything from smoking in pubs to tobacco advertising and sponsorship. But while there is a market for such unpleasant items, I’d rather the companies that made them were as responsible and sustainable as possible.

  2. who are you trying to convince?? this isn’t a comment, it’s an essay. and the question doesn’t deserve one: the only reasonable and sustainable thing for a rogue industry that knowingly kills half of all its own customers, is to strategise its own exit ASAP.

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