Cigarettes are harmful for our health. Their impact on the human body has been well studied and well documented. These tiny terrors go from tobacco farms, through chemical treatments, and right into our lungs. Cigarettes bring with them lung and heart disease, cancer, and the deaths of half a million people a year.
There are other, understudied but all too real impacts of cigarettes, as well. They contribute to major environmental problems that affect the whole planet. Tobacco hurts the lives of more than those people it sadly takes. Farming tobacco has broad sweeping implications for the whole planet – all of which are negative. Here, we will discuss the devastating impact of environmental damage caused by the tobacco industry, starting with health discoveries made over 50 years ago.
Points of Interest:
- Tobacco causes about 500,000 human deaths a year.
- Environmental impacts are also highly devastating.
- Over 1 million cigarette butts are picked up off US coastlines every year.
- Filters are made from a plastic that cannot biodegrade, and ends up in soil and water sources.
- The plastic from cigarette filters disrupts delicate ecosystems, and affects wildlife.
- Animals and small children are at risk of ingesting cigarette butts, exposing them to thousands of harmful chemicals and causing injury or even death.
- Cigarette smoke produces nitrogen oxide, contributing to air pollution and climate change.
THE HISTORY OF TOBACCO REGULATION
The 1961, multiple national organizations urged then president John F. Kennedy to address smoking concerns. The Royal College of Physicians in London conducted a study on the health impacts of smoking. The critical study circulated in the US, prompting the president’s response. In 1964, after studying thousands of scientific articles, the Surgeon General released a report detailing the health impacts of cigarettes. Heart and lung diseases, as well as various cancers were chief among the concerns listed. By 1965, all cigarette packaging required a health risk warning label.
Despite the evidence, tobacco products remain the leading cause of preventable death in the US. Nicotine addiction is a major issue. Once hooked, smokers expose themselves to drastically increased risk of debilitating health issues, and early death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that cigarettes cause about 1 in every 5 deaths in the US annually. Their figure includes numbers from secondhand smoke-related deaths.
Food and Drug Administration
In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act gave the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority over key aspects of the tobacco industry. FDA regulations include provisions and prohibitions on the manufacture, sale, and marketing of cigarettes and other tobacco products. One goal of the act was to keep cigarettes out of the hands of youth. Authorities sought to keep kids from exposing themselves to the list of life-threatening issues that come with smoking.
Keeping cigarettes out of the hands, mouths, and lungs of children is important. Nicotine addiction is a serious problem, and the host of health issues that comes with long-term smoking should not have to fall on younger people to discover too late in life to fix. Fortunately – thanks to effective regulation, study, and control – smoking rates have declined of late. There are, however, other areas where cigarettes are less regulated – like their environmental impacts, for example. Cigarettes’ effects on the world around us, outside the bodies of our children, can be just as dire and devastating.
IMPACT AND IMPLICATIONS
Cigarette butts are not biodegradable by any useful measure. Filters are largely comprised of a plastic type of cellulose acetate. It takes a lot of years for the materials to break down, thanks to sun exposure (photodegradable). However, what remains are small bits of plastic. The remaining plastic works its way into the soil and the water, and never fully dissolves.
Plastic, of course, is not consumable nor digestible by any animal body. Imagine, then, microscopic, undetected bits of an inorganic material making its way into your food, your water, and ultimately your body because of the careless actions of smokers.
Road cleanup crews report that cigarette butts make up anywhere from a quarter up to one half of their hauled trash. The International Coastal Cleanup program removes over 1 million cigarette butts from US coastlines every single year. That number is especially big compared against the drastic decline in smokers in the US.
Authorities enforce increased littering fines. Legislators create laws to mitigate community impact. Yet, without serious regulation or changes to manufacturing practices, the problem of filters flicked all over remains rampant.
Tobacco is a fickle and frail plant. It requires lots of specific care to grow. It needs a lot of attention and chemical treatment to maintain. Crops are covered in herbicides and pesticides to keep them from unwanted trouble. But, those chemicals cause unwanted trouble for others- wildlife. Tobacco plants are sprayed with chemical treatments, which seep and runoff into the ground as well. Herbicides and pesticides alter the composition and pH levels of the soil, affecting future growth. These chemicals are also harmful for insects and small wildlife that inhabit or use the soil in any way.
Tobacco crops require cleared, empty land for growth. Then, there are needs like fire and packaging, all using further wood resources. Farm land for tobacco crops only account for 1% of their land use. Tobacco farming overall, though, accounts for 2-4% of global deforestation, due to its other costly needs. Deforestation has global consequences. Fewer trees means more greenhouse gas emissions. Worse, tobacco farmers burn their felled trees, meaning even more carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
About 80% of all trash in the ocean actual comes from land. That is how we get absurd anomalies like the great pacific garbage patch, sadly. As we said, over 1 million cigarette butts are collected from US coastlines annually. The number of filters we throw out, though, is closer to 4 trillion. Imagine the number that never make it to the trash, or are not picked up off beaches by good samaritans and sanitation workers.
Our own waterways are also susceptible to cigarette litter and chemical runoff. Imagine this, a smoker flicks a cigarette butt onto the ground in the ice, rain, or other wet weather conditions. That water, now laden with some of the over 4000 chemicals found in a single cigarette, drains into our sewer systems, and eventually, our oceans.
Obviously, cigarette filters are not made to be eaten. We know that. Our pets and livestock, unfortunately, are not as aware. Sometimes, out of curiosity, or even without knowing, animals will ingest cigarette butts. Research shows there are significant, and deadly, results when animals eat and digest filters.
Ingesting cigarettes can lead to serious internal problems for animals. The chemicals in cigarettes can cause issues like body tremors, respiratory failure, and even death in domestic animals and wildlife alike. Of course, animals would not be able to access this disgusting trash if we did not make it accessible to them.
Throwing cigarettes on the ground, stamping them out in the streets or in the grass is what creates this problem. Farm animals like cows and chickens end up swallowing cigarette butts, passing the chemicals into their systems. Or even if not, affected soil and vegetation from the plastic pollution of decomposed filters destroys the carefully balanced ecosystem of a farm.
Additionally, with the catastrophic number of filters that end up in our lakes and oceans, sea creatures like fish and turtles suffer the same fate. Across the globe, delicate levels of homeostasis are thrown out of balance by cigarette pollution.
Small children, too, are prone to ingesting cigarettes or their filters. We all know babies and young kids put pretty much anything they can find into their mouths. Like with animals, kids run the risk of being poisoned or other internal reactions when they accidentally ingest a cigarette. Lit cigarettes come with their own problematic impacts on young kids.
Of course, the obvious problem with a lit cigarette is the potential to burn someone, or to start a fire. Fall asleep while smoking, or unknowingly light up around a natural gas leak, and that is all it takes to start a disastrous fire. Cigarette smoke itself, though, also creates dangerous and life-threatening concerns for children- or anyone around a smoker, to be completely honest. Secondhand smoke, as it has come to be called, emits consistently while a cigarette is lit.
There are two types of smoke cigarettes produce: mainstream and sidestream. Mainstream smoke is what smokers exhale into the air. Sidestream smoke, though, is made up of the fumes that actually come off the end of the lit cigarette itself. In the next room, in the same building, or even outside, lingering cigarette smoke can affect anyone around. The known effects of secondhand smoke have led to strict regulation and prohibition of smoking in many public spaces.
Indoor bans on smoking drive people to smoke outdoors. But, as we already noted, smoke does not simply dissipate into nothing as it fades. In fact, studies show that cigarettes are a major contributor to climate change, impact the ozone layer, and add dangerous carcinogens to the air around us. For example, cigarettes produce nitrogen oxide.
Nitrogen oxide is a leading contributor to urban smog formation. Think, then, of concentrated smokers in metropolitan areas, and the amount of smoking they do. Now, consider that more smokers instead take their habits outdoors into open areas, and how much that adds to the already horrible smog problems in cities like Beijing or Los Angeles.
There are alternatives to the destructive and dangerous practices of the tobacco industry. E-cigarettes and vapes are not without their own potential risks. However, compared to the myriad deadly factors involved in the growth, production, and distribution of tobacco products, vapes are relatively harmless.
Vape products are sustainable in a way cigarettes never could be. When people invest in a mod or an e-cigarette device, those devices last for a lot of years. Exceptions like disposable e-cigarettes and pod vapes, unfortunately, are also made of harmful plastics and metals. The components also cause substantial environmental damage when thrown out.
The benefits of a good open system are worth it. Sustainability of the technology itself is only the start. Open system mods with tanks are rechargeable, instead of disposable. Vapor has no impact on the air around users and bystanders. Vapor from mods dissipates completely from the air after about 30 seconds.
Vape juice contains only a few chemicals, and its nicotine synthetic. Studies on the long term effects of vape compounds are ongoing. Preliminary evidence, however, suggests that vapor has minor impact on the body, if any. The Royal College of Physicians, the very same authority that found cigarettes as harmful as we know them to be today, deemed vape use 95% safer by all measures.
Nicotine addiction is a serious and life-threatening problem for smokers and all those around them. Further, smoking is harmful for the environment, animals, and the delicate balance of the ecosystems of the world. Tobacco companies put the onus on consumers, period. They accept no responsibility for their deadly practices. They also accept no blame for their persistent chemical ingredients – that never leave the earth.
There are alternatives to consider. Nicotine addiction is a difficult problem. Millions of smokers grapple with it daily. Vape companies have their own agendas and their own practices. However, they have proven consistently helpful in getting smokers to manage their habit, wean themselves off cigarettes, and even quit altogether. Vapes are also undeniably less harmful to the environment than their organic, combustible counterparts.