Big Tobacco is killing the planet with plastic. No smokescreen should be allowed to hide this | Vinayak Prasad and Andy Rowell
Jhe most common source of plastic pollution in our environment is not plastic bottles, bags or food wrappers, but cigarette butts. Smokers out nearly 800,000 metric tons of cigarettes each year, enough butts to cover New York’s Central Park. They are present in every country on the planet, from city streets to landfills, from rivers to beaches.
Cigarettes contain single-use plastics because they are designed and manufactured that way. Cigarette butts take a decade to degrade, releasing more than 7,000 toxic chemicals into the environment. Wildlife is also at risk: researchers found partially digested cigarette butts in 70% of seabirds and 30% of sea turtles sampled for a study.
If cigarettes were treated appropriately as single-use plastics, they could theoretically be banned.
It’s not just cigarettes that leave a trail of plastic. In South Asia, forms of smokeless and chewing tobacco such as gutka and khaini are sold in plastic pouches, millions of which litter the environment.
Vaping, e-tobacco and nicotine products are creating a new wave of pollution, from the mining of materials for batteries to metal and plastic waste that seeps into soil and water. In a report last year, the United States Environmental Protection Agency highlighted how lithium-ion batteries are entering municipal waste systems as consumers improperly dispose of e-tobacco and e-tobacco products. of nicotine in the household trash, as they are marked “disposable”.
The problem is global. Despite promises from tobacco companies that they will eventually stop selling cigarettes, 6 tons are produced each year. And the manufacture, sales and waste of e-tobacco and nicotine products are increasing globally as big tobacco seeks to replace revenue lost when smokers quit or die.
The industry uses a range of corporate social responsibility initiatives to paint itself green. Cleanups, anti-litter campaigns and other gestures distract the public. Partnerships with environmental institutes and ministries on reforestation and forest conservation projects obscure the way tobacco growing leads to deforestation and desertification in countries like Brazil and Tanzania.
In Mali and Senegal in West Africa, the industry-led Waterfall project sought to improve access to water. A similar initiative in Burkina Faso aims to provide clean drinking water, even though the country’s laws prohibit tobacco-sponsored initiatives. The last time the government assessed tobacco use in the population was in 2013, when almost a quarter of all men were smokers.
In the United States, about one-fifth of adults smoke, while just under one-fifth of teens use e-cigarettes. The tobacco industry has funded conservation organizations such as Keep America Beautiful, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Center for Watershed Protection.
In the Philippines, where more than 40% of men smoke, the tobacco industry has partnered with government agencies on environmental projects, including a river cleanup and a litter-free campaign.
If countries have ratified the WHO framework on tobacco control (a global health treaty) – and most have – this type of partnership is in violation. The treaty obliges the government not to interact with tobacco companies except when strictly necessary. This, of course, does not prevent tobacco companies from courting policy makers.
The public relations activities of tobacco companies have two main objectives. The first is that, from a regulatory point of view, they must be able to manufacture, sell and benefit from products that harm the environment. If e-cigarettes were regulated out of the hands of children, it would not only protect them from addiction, but also protect the environment.
The second is to present itself as sustainable to investors. British American Tobacco has been on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for 20 years now and Philip Morris on the Climate Disclosure Project’s A list.
An industry that creates nearly 800,000 metric tons of toxic waste a year from cigarette butts sits oddly in environmental sustainability. Impossible to escape the reality: tobacco waste continues to accumulate because these addictive products are not environmentally friendly but are designed to attract new customers and sustain consumption.
That could change. A UN Plastics Treaty is on the table, providing a global mechanism to address the life cycle of plastics. Many jurisdictions around the world – including India, Rwanda and the US state of California – have implemented or are considering policies to ban single-use plastics. These policies should include plastic waste from tobacco and nicotine products, including electronic products.
Governments should also require the tobacco industry to clean up the waste resulting from its products and pay for environmental damage. And they can implement the WHO treaty, which contains provisions to help governments protect themselves from being the target of industry-sponsored public relations campaigns.
Governments, investors and the global community should refuse to accept the tobacco industry’s sleight of hand. Despite sustainability claims, its new product portfolio could end up polluting more in terms of energy, material and waste consumption.
Tobacco is killing us and killing the planet.