World No Tobacco Day is an annual awareness day observed every May 31 since 1987 by WHO to raise awareness of the harms caused by tobacco products to people, public health, communities and environment. The theme of World No Tobacco Day 2022, “Tobacco: Threat to our environment” highlighting that, throughout its lifecycle, tobacco pollutes the planet and damages the health of the people and people can claim their right to health and healthy living.
The campaign is aimed to raise awareness among the public on the environmental impact of tobacco – from cultivation, production, distribution and waste. It will give tobacco users one extra reason to quit. The campaign will also aim to expose tobacco industry’s effort to “greenwash” its reputation and products by marketing themselves as environmentally friendly.
To mark this year's celebration, UNEP renewed its collaboration with WHO to raise awareness on tobacco industry’s impact to the triple planetary crisis of the climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss to resolve for a viable future, including the 2022 World Environment Day theme “Only One Earth”.
Ecosystem destroyed for tobacco
The harmful impact of the tobacco industry on the environment is vast and growing, adding unnecessary pressure to our planet’s already scarce resources and fragile ecosystems. Around 3.5 million hectares of land are destroyed for tobacco cultivation every year. Growing tobacco contributes to deforestation, especially in the developing countries giving way to environmental degradation and “failing yields” or the capacity for the land to support the growth of any other crops or vegetation. With tobacco industries, 600 million trees are chopped down to make the cigarette rolling papers, 84 megatons of CO2 are emitted into the air and 22,000 million litres of water is used annually, reducing the climate resilience, wasting resources and damaging ecosystems.
Threat to global health
Tobacco growing and manufacturing poisoned our water, air, soil and pollutes the beaches and city streets with chemicals, toxic waste, cigarette butts, including microplastics and e-cigarette waste. Tobacco smoke contains many chemicals that are harmful to both smokers and nonsmokers. Breathing even a little tobacco smoke can be harmful. Of the over 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, at least 250 are known to be harmful, including hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, nicotine and ammonia. Among the 250 harmful chemicals, at least 69 can cause cancer. Every cigarette smoked or tobacco product diminishes the precious resources that our existence depends on. Tobacco smoke contributes to higher air pollution and contains many greenhouse gases.
Tobacco use is now a well-documented threat to global health, killing more than 8 million premature death a year and is currently the world’s single biggest cause of preventable death.India with 11.2% of the world’s total smokers is at the 2nd rank and cigarette smoking and exposure to tobacco cause about 1.34 million deaths each year.
As per a report dated January 1, 2014, smokers in India consumed an average of 8.2 cigarettes per day and the total cigarettes smoked annually are more than six trillion. Of those premature deaths, about 36 per cent are from cancer, 39 per cent are from heart disease and stroke, and 24 per cent are from lung diseases. Mortality rates among smokers are about three times higher than who never smoked.
The total tobacco users in India are almost 267 million above the age group of 15 years i.e. 28.6 per cent of the population in which 42.4 per cent are men and 13.2 per cent women. In the country, 30.2 per cent adults are exposed to secondhand smoke in indoor workplace, 7.4 per cent in restaurants and 13.3 per cent in public transport. The country also account for 70 per cent of the global burden of smokeless tobacco i.e. khaini, jarda, chewing tobacco, gutka etc. which kill more than two million Indians each year and 90 per cent of oral cancer in the country are also attributed to smokeless tobacco use. Twenty-seven per cent of all cancers in India are attributable to tobacco use.
The total costs of tobacco equate to 1.04% of the country’s GDP and direct medical costs of tobacco related amount to 5.3% of the total health expenditure. The economic lost of tobacco related diseases and death in the country accounts for Rs. 1773.4 billion.
Smoking harms nearly every bodily parts and organ system and diminishes a person’s overall health. Smokers are at higher risk of developing pneumonia, tuberculosis and other airway infections. Thus smokers die 6 to 10 years earlier than their non-smoking counterparts. Smoking makes it harder for a woman to get pregnant. A pregnant smoker is at higher risk of miscarriage, having an ectopic pregnancy, having her baby born too early and with low birth weight, we and having her baby born with a cleft lip and/or cleft palate. Men who smoke are at greater risk of erectile dysfunction.
The longer a smoker’s duration of smoking, the greater is their likelihood of experiencing harm from smoking. Secondhand smoke is the combination of “sidestream” smoke, the smoke given off by a burning tobacco product and “mainstream” smoke, the smoke exhaled by a smoker.
Approximately 7,300 lung cancer deaths and increase of heart disease by 25 to 30 per cent occur each year among adult nonsmokers as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke. It also increases the risk of stroke by 20 to 30 per cent. Third-hand smoke is the long-lasting residue resulting from second-hand smoke that accumulates in indoor and outdoor environments which can end up in landfills and waste. Regardless of their age, people who quit smoking have substantial gains in life expectancy.
Smoking is highly addictive. Nicotine is the drug primarily responsible for a person’s addiction to tobacco products. The addiction to cigarettes and other tobacco products that nicotine causes is similar to the addiction produced by using drugs such as heroin, WY and cocaine. But tobacco companies intentionally added enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction.
There is no safe level of smoking. Smoking even just one cigarette per day over a lifetime can cause smoking-related deaths. While on smoking, the heart rate and blood pressure increase and the level of blood CO increases and reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.
The environmental impact of tobacco using is especially dangerous for developing countries, as 90 per cent of the tobacco production happens but the profits are made by Multinational tobacco companies that are based in higher-income countries. In low- and middle-income countries, many farmers and government see tobacco as a cash crop that can generate their economy; however, in long-term consequences they have to face from food insecurity, sustained debt, illness and poverty and widespread environmental damages.
The fact that today most people are aware of the health impacts of using tobacco is a victory for global health and well-being. It moves us one step closer to a world where a billion people are less likely to die from the consequences of chewing, smoking or ingesting tobacco. But our success has not been matched from the tobacco impacts–including on education, equality, economic growth and on the environment.
The tobacco industry damages the environment far beyond the effects of the smoke that cigarettes put into the air. Long after a cigarette has been extinguished, it continues to cause environmental damage in the form of non-biodegradable butts – millions of kilograms of which are discarded every year.
Most importantly, the environmental consequences of tobacco consumption move it from being an individual problem to being a human problem. It is not just about the lives of smokers and those around them but is now at stake on the fate of the entire planet. Recognizing the harmful impact of tobacco in terms of indoor pollution and on biodiversity turns tobacco from an issue of individual’s well-being to one of global well-being. It also means that tobacco can no longer be categorized simply as a health threat – it is a threat to human development and other living beings. The tobacco industry is making profit by destroying the environment and needs to be held accountable for the environmental destruction and should to pay for the waste and damages, including recovering the cost of collecting these wastes.
Solution to the global problem
Only global action will create a solution for this global problem. Governments and policy makers should support tobacco farmers to switch to alternative, more sustainable livelihoods to reduce the environmental impact of tobacco growing, curing and manufacturing while continuing to implement various tobacco control measures.
It is clear by now that tobacco control intersects with other pressing global issues such as those addressed by the Sustainable Development Goals, the Rio+20 environmental commitments, climate change approaches, new global trade agreements and environmental justice. It has not only direct harmful effects on its consumer’s health but it also affects the country’s economy, environment, women and child health. Reducing tobacco consumption needs to be identified as a key lever for achieving all the Sustainable Development Goals, not just for those directly related health issues but the overall environmental problems of the mother earth. Therefore, let’s quit tobacco right from this moment onwards for our health and the health of the planet.
(The views expressed are personal)