The Big Cost
We’ve all known that smoking has been a plague upon us which has killed millions of people worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) has projected that by the year 2030 that smoking will account for ten percent of all deaths worldwide. Not only smokers are affected, smoking also negatively impacts non-smokers through secondhand smoke. We usually think about the cost in human lives, but often, the environmental impact has been simply overlooked.
The amount of pollution generated by smoking goes far beyond the fumes emitted by each individual cigarette. There’s the litter generated from outer packaging, the cigarette butt/filter people discard everywhere but trash cans, or so it seems. Obviously, it was the concern about secondhand smoke that led to public smoking bans, and gradually led to total bans from public places, such as public buildings, hospitals, schools, pubs, and virtually any place where there were people. It didn’t really get drastic until the last decade or so, but we did get there.
We’re so conditioned now to the whole ‘no smoking’ thing, that the idea of smoking on airplanes, in hospitals, in teacher’s lounges and at your desk at work is a distant memory to anyone under the age of 50. Such open smoking must seem far-fetched to millennials and the tail end of Generation-X. I’m of the Baby Boomer age though and I remember all too well when you could and everyone did smoke everywhere.
On the other hand, smoking in public locations, especially bars, was triumphantly brazen across the most of the United States until the middle of the last decade and there are still holdout states and areas where exemptions exist that allow indoor smoking. Good Ol’ America, eh?
Oddly enough, airports that permit smoking are few, but there are vaping friendly airports which remain in the United States. For example, vapers willing to tough out hazy confines of a poorly ventilated glass box are free throw clouds in peace at several designated areas at the nation’s busiest airport in Atlanta.
Here’s the thing though, the cigarette industry hasn’t yet gotten its fair share of attention, an I mean the environmental cost of smoking.
Production And Waste
What we often don’t consider is that pack of smokes didn’t magically spring from the ground, fully-formed. To get it to you, the consumer, intensive cultivation, industrial manufacturing and a lengthy supply chain were required to bring cigarettes from the soil to the local mini-mart. This cigarette manufacturing process has a huge effect on the environment and local communities that surround it. Constant tobacco farming depletes the nutrients in the soil and consumes massive amounts of water and fuel.
The amount of pollution from living near or working in factories that produce tobacco products inflict a serious toll on local wildlife and the human population. China is the largest manufacturer of cigarettes, and it’s hard to justify the countless hectares of land and water being used for cigarettes when so many of their citizens are without access to clean water, Cigarette production is most common in rural, poorer areas of the world. Think about that for a moment.
Tobacco is relies on pesticides a great deal. So much so in fact that in 2005, a study found that as a crop it ranks sixth in the use of pesticides per acre. Tobacco absorbs more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than any other major cash or food crop. As a result, it depletes soil fertility at a rapid rate.
Today, plastic bags and water bottles get more attention, but the most discarded piece of litter on the beaches of the world are cigarette butts. In fact, they are the most common piece of waste in the world, bar none. They are not biodegradable and the combined weight of cigarette butts dumped annually tips the scales at an astounding 175,000 tons. In total, cigarette packaging and butts add up to 1,800,000 tons of refuse.
Cigarette butts are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic, paper and rayon.[iii] But there is more to discarded butts than these constituent components. As filters, they pick up the toxic chemicals found in cigarette smoke. Arsenic, lead, nicotine and ethyl phenol have been identified in butts. Studies have found that these chemicals leach into the environment and endanger animals and plants crucial to the ecosystem.
While straw bans have begun to take hold, cigarette butts are largely ignored. This is due to heart wrenching tales of animals suffering from discarded straws and grotesque islands of plastic floating about the Pacific. Cigarette butts mar our oceans and waterways in greater numbers still and this is a problem we must contain and soon.
The End Of Tobacco Farmers?
The use of tobacco is declining all over the world, and most countries say they are happy about this. If nothing else, eliminating the tobacco industry does look great on paper. Better public health, less pollution and of course, fewer smoking-related deaths. However, you also have to factor in all of the people whose livelihoods are directly tied to tobacco farming. Where does the decrease in tobacco farms leave them? Remember the horror stories from the 80s and 90s when farms were being foreclosed on and the world was in turmoil?
It doesn’t have to be the same game, and anyone who would argue otherwise is fooling themselves. Properly managed, , a decrease in tobacco farming and cigarette production doesn’t have to leave millions without income. The health care savings would be enormous and coherent policies could incentivize a switch to sustainable and beneficial agricultural pursuits. Imagine lowering the amount of tobacco in the world while simultaneously increasing the supply of food. You may call me a dreamer, but there doesn’t have to be starvation in our world.
Can We Repair The Damage?
If you currently vape, chances are that you were once and may possibly still be a smoker. Your ability to alter Chinese agricultural policies may seem minimal (and justifiably so) but you can still limit the environmental damage inflicted by smokers
Yes, I know I have spoken about cigarette litter more than once but it really is as easy as, watching where you throw your butts. Plastic straw bans have been in the news and you may even be aware that there are islands of plastic that pollute the oceans. Despite the headlines, cigarette butts are the most abundant piece of trash generated by humans and a much greater threat to the environment.
Everytime you smoke, don’t flick your butt into the gutter and keep in mind that over sixty million butts have been plucked from the beaches of the world alone. It is ironic that the filters are largely at fault. They may not provide any health protection but they certainly are taking a toll on the environment.
There are nuances to basic vaping etiquette that may require a bit of elaboration, but the societal rules regarding littering are pretty clear cut. Don’t do it. Consider donating your time to picking up stray butts not only at the water’s edge but in areas where smoker’s congregate. It is an easy way to give back and all you need is a broom and a pan. The ground around designated smoking areas does not have magical absorptive powers, as anyone who has seen a smoking area after the spring thaw can attest to. This is a problem that can be tackled one butt at a time.