Logs piled outside tobacco curing barns in Malawi.

The cigarette industry’s green disguise

18 May 2022
Sonja von Eichborn, Director, Unfairtobacco

Sonja von Eichborn

Director, Unfairtobacco

Tobacco control is commonly acknowledged as a central strategy to reduce death and disease from cancer and other noncommunicable diseases. A more recent interpretation of tobacco control additionally draws attention to human rights and the protection of the environment. This year, the World Health Organization follows this path with its theme for World No Tobacco Day: Tobacco is poisoning our planet

While the climate crisis continues to deepen, the tobacco industry imposes its unnecessary burden on already harmed ecosystems and depletes scarce resources. A few years ago, British scientists researched the cigarette’s environmental impact from seedbed to butt. Their conclusion: The cigarette industry produces an ecological footprint equivalent to 84 million tonnes of CO2 for products that kill half of their users when used as intended. If it were a country, it would have a carbon footprint as large as Austria or twice that of Denmark.

The tobacco plant needs many nutrients and huge amounts of water as well as pesticides due to monoculture. After some years, soils are depleted, In Tanzania, for example, farmers have to cut down forests to develop new fertile fields – leading to about 3.5% of deforestation in tobacco growing areas. In Bangladesh, tobacco fields cover the riverbanks of Matamuhuri River and the run-off, including pesticide residues, causes a loss of biodiversity and fish. In total, tobacco cultivation accounts for about one quarter of the cigarette industry’s carbon footprint.

After the harvest, tobacco is dried by air, by sun and by a flue curing process. The latter is necessary for Virginia tobacco, the variety commonly contained as the largest component in American Blend cigarettes. The green leaves are hung in curing barns and left to dry in heated air. This flue curing process requires as much as eight million tons of firewood every year. This fuelwood is harvested by cutting down nearby forests. Globally, the Miombo woodlands in southern Africa, for example in Tanzania or Zimbabwe, bear the most severe deforestation due to tobacco. Forests are lost not only as an ecosystem but also as carbon storage, while burning the wood adds CO2 to the atmosphere. The environmental toll of tobacco curing accounts for half of the total carbon footprint.

To be clear: Three quarters of the cigarette industry’s ecological bill is paid by tobacco growing countries such as Bangladesh, Brazil, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania or Zimbabwe. The remaining quarter occurs in processing, manufacturing, transport, consumption and waste. Consumption and cigarette waste accounts for only 1%. However, people in high-income countries perceive cigarette butts as the most important environmental problem of cigarettes. Why is that?

Well, tobacco users often do not know or care about the environmental impact of cigarette production, but are aware of their waste. And in the global economy, companies are used to externalise environmental costs without being held accountable for them. Cigarette companies are no exception. After decades of trust in voluntary corporate responsibility, governments only recently started to act upon human rights violations and environmental damages in supply chains, by drafting and adopting due diligence legislation, like the Supply Chain Act in Germany or the draft bill on EU level.

But the more important reason for this perception is the tobacco industry’s playbook. Already in the 1980s the tobacco industry started to counter reports on tobacco-attributable deforestation and shape the debate by lobbying national and international policy makers, using front groups and commissioning research. The industry downplayed the impact on forests, while claiming economic benefits und ultimately shifted the blame to farmers and governments in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Additionally, cigarette companies use an effective Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy called greenwashing: They intend to create an eco-friendly image and present themselves as responsible corporate citizens, in order to divert public attention away from environmental damages and human rights violations in the supply chain – and away from their products’ devastating impact on human health.

Tobacco companies publish reports on sustainability, environment and human rights using their own criteria to demonstrate their responsibility. They fund projects from development or environment organisations like treeplanting and agroforestry in LMICs to appear as partners to solve problems. They even fund a foundation against child labour in tobacco fields while profiting from their unpaid labour and violating their rights to health, education and protection from exploitation. Well, child labour in tobacco growing is a topic in itself and worth to be dealt with in a separate blog post.

In high-income countries, cigarette corporations and their interest groups concentrate on the issue of tobacco product waste. They sponsor initiatives taking care of cigarette butts in beach and city clean-ups. The industry’s best proposed solution are pocket ashtrays, with or without their brand printed on it. Philip Morris even commissioned a report on the perfect portable ashtray. Thus, the companies again shift their responsibility, this time to their own customers.

But as green as the tobacco industry pretends to be, it does not change its system. It is time for us, for the tobacco control community, to join hands with environmental groups and counter this industry profiting from externalising environmental damages and selling carcinogenic products.

Sonja von Eichborn holds a Master’s degree in African Studies. Based in Berlin, she acts as Director of Unfairtobacco, a project exposing how the tobacco industry harms farmers, consumers and the environment.

Last update: 
Wednesday 8 June 2022
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