The production and consumption of tobacco damages the environment and the climate. Countless cigarette butts are carelessly discarded and end up as toxic waste on streets, in meadows and on beaches. But this is only a tiny fraction of the problem and accounts for just one percent of the cigarette industry’s carbon footprint. Before cigarettes reach consumers, their production has serious consequences for soils, waters, forests and the atmosphere.

Carbon footprint of the cigarette industry

A carbon footprint includes direct greenhouse gas emissions and indirect emissions, i.e. those caused by products used in the supply chain. All emissions are converted to CO2 and referred to as CO2 equivalents. Thus, carbon footprints of industries or countries can be compared.

Three scientists calculated such a carbon footprint for the cigarette industry and published it in October 2018.

carbon footprint cigarette industry

The cigarette industry generates around 84 million tons of CO2 equivalents annually.

That’s about as much as the emissions of Austria or New Zealand or twice the emissions of Denmark (2018). The carbon footprint includes the cultivation, curing and processing of tobacco, the production and distribution of cigarettes, and tobaccu use including tobacco waste. More than three quarters, or 78%, of the climate damage occurs during cultivating and curing tobacco, mostly in the Global South, where there are few environmental standards. Tobacco processing and cigarette production account for 20%, or one-fifth, and the remaining 2% are caused by distribution, consumption and waste.

Tobacco Environment Climate

Where does the tobacco industry deplete resources? What impact do tobacco and cigarettes have on the environment?

Chemicals in tobacco cultivation

Tobacco is grown in monocultures and therefore chemicals are extensively used against plant pests, fungal infestations and weeds. These chemicals are very toxic, to humans as well. Some are carcinogenic, some are mutagenic (can damage genes) and all of them poison air, water and soil. Known chemicals include, for example, the soil disinfectant chloropicrin and the pesticide 1,3-dichloropropene. Both substances have been banned in the EU for more than 10 years. The herbicide glyphosate was classified by the WHO cancer agency as probably carcinogenic. It is also used in tobacco cultivation, while a ban has been the subject of controversial debate in the EU for years.

These chemicals and chemical fertilizers leach into soils in humid weather conditions. They are washed out of the fields into nearby watercourses and end up in the groundwater, in some cases even in the oceans. The largely irreversible consequences are borne by all people in tobacco growing areas, and their access to safe drinking water is jeopardized as a result.

Deforestation caused by tobacco

After harvesting, the tobacco needs drying. Depending on the variety tobacco is dried under the sun, in the air (under a shade) or in heated ovens. The Virginia tobacco variety is the main ingredient of the popular American Blend cigarettes. This variety is dried in a process known as flue curing. Over the period of about one week, the green leaves hang in sheds over hot tubes which are heated by fire around the clock. Every year, 8 million tons of firewood are needed for flue curing. To gain enough fuelwood trees are cut down in surrounding forests. And that’s not all: additional forest areas are cleared to open up new fields, because tobacco requires a lot of nutrients, so the soils are leached such an extent that new fields are needed after two to three years.

The greatest environmental destruction is seen in the Miombo dry forest area in southeast Africa, which runs through Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, among other countries. In Tanzania, up to 6.5% of deforestation in tobacco growing areas is attributable to tobacco. In Zimbabwe, the Forestry Commission reports 20%, and in Malawi, the share is estimated at up to 26%. All people in the region, not only the tobacco growing families, lose their livelihoods with the forest, as the soil is permanently unprotected against erosion.

Concerning the climate crisis, this translates into a lack of natural carbon storage due to the clearing of forests and the release of additional CO2 into the atmosphere due to the burning of wood.

Water consumption and contaminated wastewater

Tobacco also requires a lot of irrigation, amounting to 22 billion tons of surface and groundwater worldwide every year. At a water footprint of just under 3,000 liters per kilo, tobacco requires twice as much water to grow as corn, five times as much as cassava, or ten times as much as cabbage. For countries like Malawi or Zimbabwe, this is additional water stress on already scarce resources.

In the factories of the cigarette industry, tobacco is processed, treated with additives and manufactured into cigarettes. This process consumes about 60 million tons of fresh water worldwide each year, while generating 55 million tons of contaminated wastewater. The wastewater contains a range of toxins, including ammonia, nicotine, hydrochloric acid, nitrate, chlorine, lead compounds, heavy metals and many others.

Toxic plastic waste

After smoking, cigarette butts are usually carelessly discarded, on the ground, in the storm drain or in the sand at the beach. Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded each year, about three-quarters of the cigarettes smoked. Cigarette butts consist of the filter and residue tobacco, and their components and ingredients end up in soils and waterways.

The filters are made of cellulose acetate, a synthetic material, and decompose only slowly. Indeed, they are plastic waste. Filters are not biodegradable, but break down into ever smaller pieces, endign up as microplastics. On beaches around the world, cigarette butts are on top of the list of the most common pieces of trash found during coastal cleanups. Marine animals can mistake them for food, and this causes indigestible materials to accumulate in their stomachs, as is the case with other plastics.

In addition, cigarette butts contain many toxic, carcinogenic substances, such as arsenic or lead, and of course nicotine. Together with the butts, these substances enter rivers, groundwater and oceans via land and sewage systems. Based on the nicotine concentration, one cigarette butt can contaminate 1,000 liters of water in such a way that tiny aquatic organisms such as water fleas are harmed. Another laboratory study showed that the leaching of one cigarette butt in one liter of water is lethal to half of marine and freshwater fish after 48 hours.

At the end of the product cycle, the balance is negative: Tobacco harms the environment and the climate. A product that is not necessary for survival, but kills half of those who consume it when used as intended, contributes as much to the climate crisis as a small industrialized country damaging soils, waters, forests and the atmosphere.

Tobacco curing generates 45 million tons of CO2 - half of all emissions by the cigarette industry.