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The Environment vs Cigarettes

Urban Cigarette Butt
While society now understands that cigarettes have the ability to impact the environment greatly, there is a second damaging side to smoking and cigarettes. Both cigarette smoke itself and the waste from cigarettes can have a major impact on the environment. While the topic of health is of the utmost importance and should be discussed, it is also important to focus on this important side topic. But how do cigarettes impact the environment? Is harm to the environment enough of a reason to quit smoking? Read on to learn the truth about how cigarettes impact the environment in many ways.

Cigarette Manufacturing Harms the Environment

It is not only smoking that causes harm to the environment; cigarette manufacturing processes can also damage the environment extensively. From deforestation to environmental run-off associated with tobacco growing processes, the environment is damaged every day by the tobacco industry. By choosing to smoke, you are choosing to support this environmental damage.



Deforestation refers to the process of stripping land of natural forests, wooded areas, and other areas with high levels of flora and fauna. Tobacco fields are often planted in the rainforests of Tanzania, and this has resulted in major deforestation in the country. According to Emmanuel Mihambo, a peasant farmer from Usenge village in Tabora who has grown tobacco since the 1980s, deforestation has become obvious. What started for his father as only 4 hectares of tobacco fields has grown into a large industry.  “The situation has changed a lot. Imagine that valley separating Usenge and Ntalikwa village used to be covered by a dense forest. You could often spot wild animals such as antelopes. But all the forest is gone.”

Sentiments like this one are not only found in rainforest areas. In June of 1995, a Bellagio statement on tobacco development stated that, within the developing world, "tobacco poses a major challenge, not just to health, but also to environmental sustainability." In these developing areas, deforestation can have a devastating effect. It reduces the amount of plants available for foraging, and can even kill of animals, leaving little for hunters.


Further, many of these developing countries burn wood in order to create the fires used to dry out tobacco leaves before they are rolled into cigarettes. This wood has to come from somewhere; it, too, is often taken from the forests surrounding the fields.


Production Runoff and Waste

The process of growing, curing, and transporting tobacco also requires the use of chemicals and can leach the soil of beneficial minerals and nutrients. Consider that one of the most frequently used in tobacco production is Aldicarb. Aldicarb is exceptionally toxic to humans, and equally toxic to most animals. Further, production waste is often comprised of imidacloprid, chlorpyrifos, 1,3—dichloropropene, aldicarb, dithane DF and methyl bromide. All of these can potentially cause harm to humans, plants, and animals. As far back as 1995, the tobacco industry was producing an estimated 2262 million kilograms of manufacturing waste each year. An additional 209 million kilograms of chemical waste were also produced each year. 1 This rate has only increased since that time.


Air Pollution from Manufacturing Processes and Smoking

Air pollution is also associated with smoking and the cigarette manufacturing process. Of course, as you might expect, smoking a cigarette leads to second-hand smoke. This pollutes the air in a direct way. However, the manufacturing and farming process for cigarettes and tobacco also highly pollutes the air.


Pollution through Smoking

Cigarettes contain two main atmosphere-polluting chemicals (although they also contain other chemicals), carbon dioxide and methane. While these two aren't lethal to humans who smoke a single cigarette, they do contribute to overall atmospheric pollution. Consider this; smoking worldwide releases about 2.6 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide in the air every year. It also releases about 5.2 billion kilograms of methane every year. That is clearly a much larger impact than most smokers often consider. And according to the World Health Organization, “Although the global share of agricultural land used for tobacco growing is less than 1 percent, its impact on global deforestation is 2-4 percent, making a visible footprint for climate change."


Smoking also releases second-hand smoke. This can be a direct or indirect danger to other people or animals. There have been many instances where second-hand smoke was thought to be responsible for cancer cases in nonsmokers, as well as other instances of illness. Many small pets can quickly be overwhelmed by second-hand smoke, especially when the smoker is confined in a small space like an apartment.


Air Pollution through Farming and Manufacturing

shutterstock_96578212The tobacco industry causes air pollution in many ways. Tobacco must be grown, and before fields can be planted, machines are used to prepare the fields for planting. Other machines are used to maintain the fields during growth. Pesticides and other chemicals may be added to the soil or crop dusted on in order to prevent crop loss. Finally, once the tobacco is ready to be cut, more machines are used to cut it and prepare it for curing. The curing process also requires either special furnaces or wood-burning fires in order to bring it to the right balance of moisture for smoking. All of this releases harmful chemicals into the air.

When the tobacco is ready to be rolled or packaged, it is most often shipped to a factory where it is then packed or rolled by hand or by machine. All of this requires more energy, space, and sometimes, harsh chemicals. Then, transportation must be engaged to bring the tobacco to stores all across the world. All in all, this is an extremely heavy environmental footprint.


Cigarette Butts and the Environment

Without a doubt, cigarette butts are one of the highest waste forms that cigarettes produce. Cigarette butts are scattered on the ground by those who smoke, and also find their way onto the ground through trash. Cigarette butts can even end up along shorelines, waterways, and wetlands. In an annual global survey by the Ocean Conservancy, it was shown that cigarette filters are the most commonly littered item out of all littered items. This is held true for over 20 years. It's easy to think of a cigarette butt is just a small item, something that will decompose and not create a problem. However, nothing could be further from the truth.


Cigarette butts pose problems for waterways in several different ways. Consider that in 2008, the International Coastal Cleanup clean nearly 3.2 million cigarette butts from beaches and waterways around the world. They estimated that during the 2009 cleanup, cigarette filters and pieces of cigarettes accounted for nearly twice the amount of all other debris. Not only do these parts of cigarettes look bad, they also have the ability to harm plants, animals, and even groundwater.


Cigarette Butts are Not Biodegradable

Consider that cigarette butts are not biodegradable. Tobacco itself is biodegradable, and will break down over time, but many of the other ingredients used to make the actual cigarette are not. Filters are made from something called cellulose acetate, which is a form of plastic. Cellulose acetate is photodegradable, meaning it will break down when exposed to UV rays, but the amount of time that this takes is extensive. Even when cigarettes are photodegraded, pieces of the original material will stay in the soil for an indefinite period of time. Researchers estimate that it may take as long as 10 years for single cigarette butt to break down completely.


While cigarette butts lying around on the ground aren't exactly aesthetically pleasing, the real issue occurs when they begin to impact children, wildlife, and pets. Cigarette filters and butts are poisonous. Thousands of children are poisoned by eating cigarette butts are ingestingcigarette parts each year. A parent does not need to smoke up with a child at risk; many young children will pick up items off of the ground and curiosity, and very young children are often used to explore with their mouths. Children who ingest cigarette butts may experience vomiting, nausea, pale skin tones, higher low blood pressure, lethargy, gagging, and a host of other issues.




Fish can also be impacted by cigarettes being dropped on the ground. Cigarette butts can find their way into waterways, and can be eaten by the fish that live within them because they look similar to an insect or worm. This is not the only way in which cigarette butts are dangerous to fish; a research study in the United States showed that the runoff from just one cigarette butt was enough to kill a fish living in a 1 L container of water. When you consider that millions of cigarette butts are dropped on the ground and into waterways each year, it is easy to understand how dangerous cigarettes are to waterways.



Pets that are out for a walk or in the home can also be injured by cigarette butts. Cats and dogs are at high risk for ingesting cigarette butts, and can actually be killed by the small amount of nicotine that is present in cigarettes. Second-hand smoke can also trigger asthma in small pets; rats are especially susceptible to lung problems because of cigarette smoke. And, much like their human counterparts, pets can also end up with cancer because of cigarette smoke.



Forest fires are also a significant source of pollution that is frequently caused by discarded cigarette butts. Residential homes are not without risk when a smoker lives or visits, either; many residential fires are caused by cigarettes left to burn or dropped when the smoker falls asleep. It has been estimated that 17,000 people worldwide are killed each and every year as a result of fires that are caused by cigarettes or cigarette lighters. This causes property damage in excess of US $27 billion each year. Anyone within the home at the time the fire occurs is at risk of being killed or severely injured; there have been situations where smokers have fallen asleep and not woken in time to escape the home.

Forest fires are harmful to the environment for obvious reasons; they cause massive deforestation and devastation and, occasionally, can even be impossible to stop through man-made interventions. In China, during the end of 1987, a massive forest fire was started by a dropped cigarette butt. In the end, the fire killed 300 people, and nearly 5,000 others were made homeless by the damage. Overall, nearly 1.3 million hectares of land were destroyed. Animals who called this land their home were also killed or displaced. This has an impact on the local and world ecology, and can even impact farming and local industry by removing resources.


Why Efforts by the Tobacco Industry Aren't Effective

The tobacco industry has made efforts in the past to become more "green." However, these efforts have seemingly been more for show and public relations than they have been to make an impact on the environment. For example, Japan Tobacco International frequently gives out biodegradable pocket ashtrays at events in Japan. While this may seem like a good way to get cigarettes off of the ground, the ashtray itself will still end up in a landfill or in the trash eventually and can still have a negative impact on the environment. Efforts of this kind take the onus off of manufacturers, and place it in the hands of the smoker. While intentions may be good, this is frequently more a Band-Aid to win the hearts of the public than anything else.


Of course, there are many other ways in which tobacco products like cigarettes impact the environment. As with any other product, transportation must carry products from the factory to the store shelf, and packaging for the cigarettes is a whole secondary process that increases the global footprint required to create them. This is just one of the many reasons that more people than ever are choosing to quit smoking and live a healthier lifestyle.


1 Novotny, T.E. & Zhao, F. (1999). Consumption and production waste: another externality of tobacco use. Tobacco Control, 8, 75-80.

4 Responses to "The Environment vs Cigarettes"

  • Anonymous
    March 1, 2016 - 1:25 am Reply

    Thank you Nathan. Your article was very helpful. It was a neccessity to complete my project for college. I agree with all your points on why it is harmful, and i’m glad someone is out there educating the world about these problems.

  • Jalal
    March 13, 2016 - 5:15 am Reply

    Just wanted to add two points in here:
    1.I would say we should consider encouraging the clean age group who are at risk of becoming smokers not to join the addicts league more than those who already do, for it is much easier to not form the habit of smoking than to force oneself to kick the habit. Until one day comes that food becomes so rare that the ciggerette industry has no choice other than switching to regular food farming(if any healthy pieces of land and other resources remain until then.).
    2.As mentioned above, the damages go beyoun the list,then nwhy not enforcing laws that smokers pay a somewhat more realistic price for the damages they are imposing on other creatures.

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