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Last updated: 13 March 2024

Beyond Health: The Alarming Environmental Cost of Smoking

Smoking is widely recognised for its detrimental effects on human health, but its environmental impact is equally alarming. Tobacco product production, consumption, and disposal contribute significantly to global environmental degradation.

Air pollution caused by smoking contribute not to only health but releases a toxic compound into the environment

Tobacco farming is a major cause of deforestation, with an estimated 200,000 hectares of forests and woodlands removed annually, particularly in the developing world. Moreover, tobacco cultivation requires substantial amounts of water, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting that the industry consumes 22 billion tonnes of water each year. 

Every year the tobacco industry costs the world more than 8 million human lives, 600 million trees, 200 000 hectares of land, 22 billion tonnes of water and 84 million tonnes of CO2.

World Health Organization (WHO)

Cigarette smoke is a potent source of air pollution, emitting ten times more particulate matter than diesel car exhaust. This contributes to poor air quality and poses health risks not only to smokers but also to those exposed to secondhand smoke.

Cigarette butts, which contain plastic filters, are the most littered item globally, with 4.5 trillion annually. They are not biodegradable and can decompose for up to 10 years, leaching toxic chemicals into the environment. In addition, the E-cigarettes are not left out. E-cigarettes also contribute to environmental pollution, with over 894,700 littered on roadways and waterways.

The production and consumption of tobacco products also lead to significant carbon emissions, with smoking directly emitting 2.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually

Globally, the tobacco industry's carbon footprint from production, processing, and transportation is equivalent to one-fifth of the CO2 produced by the commercial airline industry, further contributing to climate change.

YearTrees Cut (millions)Land Used (hectares)Water Used (tonnes)CO2 Emissions (tonnes)Cigarette Butts Littered (trillions)
2023600200,00022 billion84 million4.5

This article delves into the lesser-known environmental impacts of smoking tobacco or cigarettes, from cultivation to consumption, offering a comprehensive view backed by recent statistics and trends and hearing what some experts say.

What Do We Mean With Smoking Exactly

When we talk about smoking, we're referring to the act of inhaling and exhaling the smoke of burning plant material, most commonly tobacco. This practice can involve a variety of products, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and, more recently, electronic cigarettes or vapes. 

In the United Kingdom, smoking prevalence as of 2022 was 12.9%, equating to 6.4 million people, with a higher prevalence among men (14.6%) compared to women (11.2%). This indicates a significant number of individuals contributing to the environmental impact of smoking within the UK alone.

However, beyond the well-documented health risks to individuals, smoking also has a profound impact on the environment. The entire lifecycle of tobacco products, from cultivation to consumption and disposal, contributes to environmental degradation. This includes deforestation for tobacco farming, pollution from manufacturing processes, and the littering of cigarette butts and e-cigarette components, which are often non-biodegradable and contain toxic substances. 

E-cigarette waste is potentially a more serious environmental threat than cigarette butts since e-cigarettes introduce plastic, nicotine salts, and other hazardous waste into the environment.

Truth Initiative

Environmental Impact of Smoking

The environmental impact of smoking is vast, and it keeps growing. Tobacco cultivation for human consumption poses significant environmental challenges, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. 

Let’s explore the environmental impact of smoking, shedding light on this global habit's often-overlooked environmental footprint.

What is so bad about Smoking for the environment?

Smoking has a significant negative impact on the environment, affecting both the natural world and our air quality. The production and consumption of tobacco contribute to deforestation, water pollution, and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Tobacco smoke is a major contributor to indoor air pollution

The environmental impact of smoking. This shows the harmful effects of tobacco cultivation, which contributes to deforestation and soil erosion, and the pollution caused by discarded cigarette butts, which are the most littered item globally.

What is the impact of smoking?

Deforestation and Soil Degradation

Each year, approximately 600,000 hectares of forest are lost due to tobacco agriculture. Tobacco crops also deplete soil nutrients by consuming more nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium than most other crops.

Littering and Waste

Cigarette butts made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic, are the most abundant form of plastic waste in the world. Cigarette butts make up more than one-third—nearly 38 per cent—of all collected litter. These butts contain numerous toxic compounds, and when they are mobilised into waterways, they release these toxins into the water. 

It's estimated that one cigarette butt can contaminate a thousand litres of water. 

E-cigarette waste is potentially a more serious environmental threat than cigarette butts since e-cigarettes introduce plastic, nicotine salts, heavy metals, lead, mercury, and flammable lithium-ion batteries into waterways. 

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Smoking leads directly to the emission of 2,600,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and about 5,200,000 tonnes of methane yearly. The production, processing, and transportation of tobacco is equivalent to one-fifth of the CO2 produced by the commercial aviation industry. 

Economic Impact

The tobacco industry costs more than 8 million human lives, 600 million trees, 200,000 hectares of land, 22 billion tonnes of water, and 84 million tonnes of CO2 annually. 

Air Pollution

Smoking also contributes to air pollution. Studies have shown that waterpipe cafés, for instance, have high concentrations of pollutants such as formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and nicotine. 

Contribution to Climate Change

The production and disposal of smoking-related products contribute to climate change due to the release of greenhouse gases. The tobacco industry's carbon footprint from producing, processing, and transporting tobacco is equivalent to one-fifth of the CO2 produced by the commercial aviation sector

The health concerns, societal costs and the negative sustainability impact of tobacco products do not correspond with our commitment to promote sustainable development

NN Group, a financial institution urging the UN States on Tobacco Control.

The Environmental Footprint of a Smoker

The environmental impact of a single smoker is substantial. Research has shown that one person smoking a pack of 20 cigarettes every day for a year contributes nearly ten times more to fossil fuel depletion and four times more to climate change compared to the average consumer of sugar in one year.

The Cost of Tobacco to the Environment

The World Health Organization (WHO) has raised alarm over the environmental impact of the tobacco industry.  

The economic cost of cleaning up cigarette butts is substantial. In the UK, local authorities spend around £40 million annually to clean up littered cigarette butts. In the city of London, about £4 million is spent each year to clean up six million cigarette butts.

Environmental AspectImpact
Deforestation (hectares/year)200,000 
Cigarette butts littered (trillions/year)4.5 trillion
Methane emissions from smoking (tonnes/year)5,200,000 
E-cigarette items littered (U.S. roadways and waterways, 2020)894,700
Carbon dioxide emissions (tonnes/year)2,600,000
Water used (tonnes/year)22 billion
Tobacco-related deaths (annually)8 million
CO2 Emissions84 million
Toxic Chemicals Released2,000+
Cost to the world (trees)600,000
Cleanup Cost (UK, annually)£40 million
Microplastic strands in each smoked cigarette filter15,000
Data source: WHO Annual Environmental Cost of the Tobacco Industry

Can We Get Rid of Smoking?

Eliminating smoking is a complex issue due to the addictive nature of nicotine and the societal and cultural factors associated with smoking. However, numerous strategies would have to be implemented and proven effective in reducing smoking rates and helping individuals quit.

Furthermore, government policies and regulations play a crucial role in reducing smoking rates. For example, the UK government has set a target to be smoke-free by 2030. It has proposed measures such as raising the age of sale for tobacco products and reducing the appeal and availability of vapes to young people.

Tobacco reduces our quality of life as it competes for resources with commodities valuable to poverty alleviation and sustainable development. - Report from Imperial College London.

Is Smoking Toxic?

Smoking is indeed toxic. It poses significant health risks to both smokers and non-smokers, and it has a detrimental impact on the environment. The smoke from burning tobacco contains a complex mixture of over 7,000 chemicals, including about 70 that are known to cause cancer. 

These harmful chemicals include carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, benzene, formaldehyde, nicotine, phenol, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs). 

Health Risks of SmokingPercentage of Cases Caused by Smoking
Lung Cancer90%
Coronary Heart Disease2 to 4 times higher risk
Stroke2 to 4 times higher risk
Men Developing Lung Cancer25 times higher risk
Women Developing Lung Cancer25.7 times higher risk
Deaths from Smoking in the U.S. per Year480,000
Deaths from Smoking in the U.K. per Year76,000

Can Cigarette Butts Be Recycled?

Despite the environmental harm caused by cigarette waste, there are initiatives in place to recycle cigarette butts. Companies like TerraCycle have partnered with Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company to create a free recycling program for cigarette waste. 

The process involves separating the tobacco and paper from the filter, which is then processed into plastic granules.

Recycling cigarette butts has significant environmental benefits. It helps reduce the number of butts that end up as litter, which is estimated to be 1.69 billion pounds worldwide per year

Participating in this program is easy and free. Individuals or businesses can collect cigarette waste in sturdy plastic containers or bags and then ship the waste to TerraCycle using a free shipping label. 

Innovative Uses of Recycled Cigarette Butts

Recycled cigarette butts have found use in various creative applications. For instance, TerraCycle has successfully transformed into industrial-grade products. This means that, for every tonne of butts recycled, it's estimated that up to 7,000 litres of water can be saved from contamination.

Additionally, the reduction in plastic waste contributes to a healthier environment.

Current Data on Cigarette Butt Recycling

YearNumber of Cigarette Butts Collected and RecycledNumber of New Products Created
202110 million100,000
202215 million150,000
202320 million200,000

This table illustrates the increasing trend in the collection and recycling of cigarette butts over the years, highlighting the growing success of these initiatives.

Is Cigarette Butts Biodegradable?

Cigarette butts are not biodegradable. The cigarette filters are primarily made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic, and do not readily biodegrade. 

The degradation time for cigarette filters can vary depending on environmental conditions, but it is estimated that they can take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to degrade. 

However, even as they degrade, they release toxic compounds such as formaldehyde, nicotine, arsenic, lead, copper, chromium, cadmium, and various polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

The Misconception About Cigarette Butts

Many smokers incorrectly believe that cigarette butts are biodegradable. This misconception may contribute to the high rates of cigarette butt littering. In fact, studies have found 60% of women and 70% of men butts are biodegradable. This group are likely to litter more. 

Is Smoking Sustainable?

The sustainability of smoking is a topic of increasing concern, given the far-reaching environmental impacts of tobacco production and consumption. 

The production, processing, and shipping of tobacco products alone are equivalent to one-fifth of the emissions released by the aviation industry. Each cigarette is estimated to emit about 14 grams of CO2 throughout its lifecycle. Annually, tobacco production emits 80 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. 

While efforts like biodegradable filters and reduced-harm products are steps towards sustainability, the overall impact of smoking remains unsustainable.

What Are Smoking Alternatives?

Smoking alternatives are products designed to replace traditional tobacco cigarettes. These alternatives include electronic cigarettes (EC), smokeless tobacco, nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), and herbal cigarettes. 

Alternatives to Smoking

  1. Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT): Includes patches, gum, lozenges, inhalers, and nasal sprays. These products deliver nicotine to the body without the harmful chemicals found in cigarettes.
  2. Electronic Cigarettes (Vaping): Devices that deliver nicotine as vapour. Vaping is considered substantially less harmful than smoking and can be an effective quitting tool.
  3. Heated Tobacco Products: Heat tobacco to produce vapour instead of smoke, offering a similar experience to smoking but with fewer harmful chemicals.
  4. Smokeless Tobacco: Includes products like snus, which are placed under the lip and do not involve combustion.
  5. Nicotine Pouches: Tobacco-free pouches containing nicotine are placed in the mouth.
  6. Behavioural Support: Counseling, support groups, and quitlines provide psychological support to help smokers quit.
  7. Prescription Medications, Such as varenicline and bupropion, can help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
  8. Alternative Therapies: Some people may turn to hypnosis, acupuncture, or laser therapy, although these methods are not as widely supported by scientific evidence.

Is it better than Alternatives?

The effectiveness and safety of smoking alternatives compared to traditional cigarettes are a subject of ongoing research. While alternatives like vaping and NRT are less harmful than smoking, they are not completely risk-free. The best choice for smokers is to quit nicotine and tobacco altogether. 

The UK's National Health Service (NHS) also supports vaping as a less harmful option than smoking and an effective tool for quitting.

Cost Comparison

The cost of smoking alternatives can vary, but many are more affordable than smoking.

Smoking AlternativeAverage Annual CostRelative EffectivenessPotential Risks
Cigarettes (20/day)£4,635.50High health BaselineHigh risk of various diseases, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and COPD.
VapingUp to £780 savings/yearHigh effectiveness; similar to NRTExposure to nicotine and other chemicals; long-term effects respiratory and cardiovascular health effects
NRT (e.g., patches, gum)Varies; often less than smokingNearly doubles chances of quittingPotential for long-term dependence on nicotine
Heated Tobacco ProductsVaries; often less than smokingReduce exposure to toxicants/carcinogens They contain many of the same harmful ingredients found in traditional cigarettes
Nicotine Pouches£6.50/can (20 pouches)There is not enough evidence to assess the safetyContains nicotine and other harmful substances.

Statistics, Facts and Figures About Smoking

Cigarette butts comprise 30%-40% of items collected in annual coastal/urban cleanups. 

Tobacco farming also contributes significantly to environmental degradation. 

The NHS spends over £5 billion annually treating smoking-related diseases.

The carbon footprint of the global tobacco industry is equivalent to about 16 million tons of CO2 annually.

Globally, 22.3% of the world’s population used tobacco: 36.7% of men and 7.8% of women.

In the UK, the estimated gross cost of smoking to public finances was £20.6 billion in 2022.

Smokers also lose a large part of their income to tobacco, an estimated £12 billion in England each year, or approximately £2,000 per smoker. 

Cigarette filters contain microplastics and make up the second-highest form of plastic pollution.

In 2022, the proportion of current smokers in the UK was 12.9%, or 6.4 million people, a decrease from the previous year.

Men are more likely to smoke than women, with 14.6% of men and 11.2% of women reporting being current smokers

The age group with the highest proportion of smokers is 25 to 34 years at 16.3%

Smoking Prevalence in the UK

Area NameNumber of smokersOverall costHealthcare costsProductivity costsSocial care costsFire costs
East Midlands522,000£1.4Bn£168.8M£1.1Bn£98.6M£28.6M
Data source: ONS

The environmental cost of smoking is a critical issue that extends beyond individual health concerns.

The statistics and facts presented underscore the need for continued efforts to reduce smoking prevalence and mitigate its environmental impact.

Environmental Impact Compared to Everyday Things

The environmental effects of smoking are comparable to other everyday activities. For instance, a person smoking 20 cigarettes per day for 50 years contributes almost five times more to water depletion and nearly two and ten times more to fossil fuel depletion than an average consumer of red meat and sugar, respectively. 

Moreover, the same smoker contributes four times more to climate change than a sugar consumer. 

ActivityCO2 Emissions
Smoking (per year)84 million tonnes
Using a Smartphone (iPhone, first year)79 kg
Car Driving (per year)4.6 metric tons
Dinner (Beef, per kg)60 kg

Smoking in the Largest Economies

The largest economies globally also bear the brunt of the environmental and economic costs of smoking. According to the WHO, there are over 1.3 billion tobacco users worldwide. For instance, the global tobacco products market was worth £696 billion

In countries like China, the largest producer and consumer of tobacco, the economic damage caused by smoking is over £380 billion each year.  

Globally, the indirect costs of smoking are estimated to be about £760 billion, with nearly two-thirds due to premature mortality. The total economic cost of tobacco represents 1.8% of global GDP

CountryNumber of SmokersAnnual Cost of Smoking (in £ billion)
USA34.1 million460
China316.2 million380
India120 million87
Brazil17.1 million36.7
UK6.9 million19
*Note: The number of smokers is estimated based on the percentage of adult smokers in each country

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