By Anum Yoon
If you run a gigantic, multinational corporation that sells poison, what do you do when you wear out your welcome in the world’s developed countries?
One option is to cut your losses and find a new product to sell. But that’s not the path being chosen by the tobacco industry. Now that the American people have caught on to the whole “smoking kills people” thing, these firms are pulling up roots and targeting poorer, less developed countries instead, trying to start the whole cycle over again.
Let’s take a look at what’s going on, and the implications it has not just on public health, but on the environment itself.
There's little doubt as to why developing countries are targeted by tobacco marketing.
In the United States, just to name one such “affluent country,” our economic wealth, and the availability of basic education, has elevated into the public consciousness a keen awareness of smoking’s battery of negative effects. Poorer countries are made prime targets for Big Tobacco’s predatory practices because of their general lack of quality education, and in some cases, the absence of an assertive central government.
The popularity of tobacco reached its peak in America back in 1982; in that year alone, we bought a total of 624 billion cigarettes. From there on out, the U.S. government has been in a long and painful battle of attrition, the ultimate goal of which is to disentangle ourselves entirely from the tobacco industry and the damage it inflicts simply by existing.
Unfortunately, it’s now come time for the populations of poorer countries to have a reckoning with the long arm of Big Tobacco. The countries most aggressively being targeted by advertising include India, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, where tobacco marketing is 81 times as common as it is in Canada, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates.
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. The accumulated evidence seems to suggest that tobacco marketing does tend to drive increases in the use of tobacco, particularly among the world’s young people. And consider this: In the years before the Soviet Union opened its doors, and its lungs, to the sale of tobacco products, extraordinarily few Russian women smoked. But within 10 years of Big Tobacco gaining a foothold there, the rate of smoking among females had fully doubled.
But even that terrible statistic doesn’t give us a complete picture of the damage wrought by Big Tobacco. It turns out that there can be significant environmental impacts as well.
The WHO estimates that about 200,000 hectares of woodlands and forests are destroyed each year to make way for tobacco farming. Studies as far back as 1999 indicated that almost 5 percent of global deforestation can be attributed to the cultivation of tobacco.
And like most other kinds of farming, the tobacco plant itself has a tendency to leach important nutrients from the surrounding soil, making it unsuitable for growing food crops, and the widespread use of aggressive pesticides and fertilizers has been linked to severe health problems when farmers aren’t properly trained in their use — a situation much more likely in the world’s developing countries.
Finally, tobacco products have been linked to an incredible amount of manufacturing and chemical waste: 2.3 billion kilograms of the former and 209 million kilograms of the latter, according to 1995 numbers. And that’s to say nothing of cigarette butts — a very common variety of litter — which aren’t biodegradable.
And yet, more than 10 years later, the FCTC’s tobacco marketing bans are still one of the least-adopted measures featured in the treaty. The developed world could do much more than it is, whether it’s imposing sanctions on countries that deny there’s a problem, or pledging economic assistance to countries that take a stand against Big Tobacco. Nearly anything is better than our current strategy, which is, more-or-less, doing nothing at all.
Image credit: LibreShot
Anum Yoon is a writer who is passionate about personal finance and sustainability. She often looks for ways she can incorporate money management with environmental awareness. You can read her updates on Current on Currency.