Let Big Tobacco stop pollution of our oceans

A tobacco farmer in Migori County.

A tobacco farmer in Migori County. As a smooth operator, the tobacco industry tries to, through funded entities, support anti-litter and related campaign.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

On the World Oceans Day last week, themed “Revitalisation: Collective Action for the Ocean”, tobacco control advocates singled out the industry’s destructive nature in so far as the blue economy is concerned.

A report published by the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC) on the same day estimated that the world has suffered roughly $100 billion, in the past 10 years alone, in ecosystem losses due to the disposed cigarette butts and tobacco plastic packaging that is estimated to enter the oceans while over $500 million is the cost of managing tobacco product plastic waste yearly.

The tobacco industry has styled itself as one of the world’s most lethal while operating behind the shadows. Notably, cigarette butts are comprised primarily of cellulose acetate, a form of non-biodegradable single use plastic. As a smooth operator, the tobacco industry tries to, through funded entities, support anti-litter and related campaigns as a means of self-promotion, marketing and sponsorship which are prohibited in many countries.

Another report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) last month found that the tobacco industry is responsible for the annual loss of eight million human lives, 600 million trees, 200,000 hectares of land, 22 billion tonnes of water and releases about 84 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere.

The report found that the carbon footprint from production, processing and transporting tobacco is equivalent to one-fifth of the carbon dioxide produced by the commercial airline industry every year, further contributing to global warming.

Alter cigarette filters

The efforts by the tobacco industry to alter the cigarette filters to eco-friendly ones is part of a covert marketing scheme to skirt advertising bans and regulations. All of a sudden, there’s a lot of interest in vapes and electronic cigarettes, which are being touted as a “safe” alternative to smoking.

Other studies have revealed that cigarette filters contain micro plastics, the tiny fragments that have been detected in every ocean and even at the bottom of the world’s deepest trench, and make up the second-highest form of plastic pollution.

The tobacco industry should not be a partner in any environmental endeavour. It must be held accountable for the cost of its harm to the environment and waste management activities. Most of the countries that have banned single-use plastics (SUPs), like Kenya, focused on straws, bottles and food packaging and shopping bags but not cigarette filters. Only a handful have specifically dealt with cigarette butts and other tobacco products.

Instead of eliminating the SUP filter, as recommended for all such plastics, the approach has embraced extended producer responsibility (EPR)—a policy whereby the producer pays for clean-ups and assists governments with educational campaigns and advocacy directed towards smokers.

Mr Mwangi is the manager, corporate communications, at Nacada. [email protected].