The annual World Health Organization (WHO) campaign highlights the many harms of tobacco. This year’s theme explores the growing threat to our environment.
Many of us are already taking action to do our bit in tackling climate change. But do we ever think about how tobacco is polluting our world globally, nationally and here in North East England?
As we face a climate emergency, our fragile ecosystems are being put under even more pressure by the tobacco industry. Tobacco damages the environment, from growing and production, distribution to waste.
Reflecting on my 24 plus years in tobacco control, I’ve seen many appalling tactics from Big Tobacco (the largest global tobacco companies who make billions in profit from killing people and destroying the planet) – including ploys to get kids hooked on a life-long addiction.
It takes a lot to shock me these days, but even I am shocked to read the things that the tobacco industry is doing to our environment.
What we see on the surface is just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the mind-blowing statistics every year:
- 600 million trees chopped down for tobacco.
- 84 million tonnes of C02 released into the air, raising global temperatures.
- 22 billion tonnes of water used to make cigarettes.
- 4.5 trillion cigarette butts not disposed of properly across the globe, generating 1.69 billion pounds of toxic waste and releasing thousands of chemicals into the environment.
Every day we see its impact on our streets and beaches. Cigarettes are the most commonly littered item in the world.
Cigarette butts are made of cellulose acetate, a man-made plastic material, which takes years to degrade and dump a toxic mix of nicotine, arsenic and heavy metals into our water, soil and oceans before turning into microplastic pollution. It makes me so sad to think what this toxic waste is doing to our marine and river wildlife.
Eight out of 10 (81%) North Easterners in a YouGov poll commissioned by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) want to see plastic in cigarette butts banned. As part of our World No Tobacco Day activity, we’re joining forces with environmental campaigners to protect the region’s beaches from plastic cigarette butts.
Beyond our region, in the developing world, deforestation for tobacco plantations is happening on a vast scale. Around 3.5 million hectares of land are destroyed for tobacco growing each year. That’s the equivalent of over 1.4 million football fields!
The environmental burden is falling on the countries which are the least able to cope with it. Farmers in low- and middle-income countries are left in debt, with widespread poverty and illness among farm workers. Meanwhile the global tobacco companies continue to make billions in profit.
I reflect on when I attended a world conference in 2006 and heard about young children being exploited for child labour by tobacco companies; picking tobacco leaves and exposed to toxic pesticides and hazardous working conditions. The consequences are life-long and this is happening around the world, as shown in the devastating 2016 Human Right Watch report “Harvest is in my Blood”.
As a mother, with children and grandchildren, I am extremely concerned about the future impact.
The question I think we should ask ourselves is – are we really aware of the harm that the tobacco industry is causing to the environment? If the answer is no, then let’s pledge to read some of the fantastic resources on the issue, including those on the WHO website. Talk to people about it, call for action. Learn more about the tobacco industry; the harm it causes.
We are supporting national colleagues Action on Smoking and Health in calling for a levy on Big Tobacco, to clean up the harm and to further reduce smoking to reach the Government’s target of a Smokefree 2030 (5% by 2030).
In the North East we’ve seen smoking rates fall faster than anywhere else in the country, thanks to the hard work and dedication of colleagues in the region.
But as the major threat of climate change looms, it’s vital that we go further and faster than ever to reduce the tobacco industry’s destructive impact and make smoking history for the next generation.
Ailsa Rutter OBE, is Director of Fresh and Balance, the North East’s combined alcohol and tobacco programme, working to reduce the harm, the death and disease caused by smoking and alcohol.
Tobacco is still the biggest cause of premature death in the UK, with an estimated 74,000 deaths each year in England and over 113,000 deaths from smoking in the North East since the year 2000.