Time we got ‘Big Tobacco’ to clean up their big mess

No tobacco

Schoolchildren at a ‘No Tobacco’ rally in India.

Photo credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar | AFP

Today is World No Tobacco Day, a global bid to minimise tobacco use. The theme the WHO chose for it is “Tobacco Threat to our Environment”.  The campaign is aimed at raising awareness of the environmental impact of tobacco—from cultivation to production, distribution and disposal—and expose the efforts of ‘Big Tobacco’ to ‘greenwash’ its reputation and products by marketing themselves as environmentally friendly.

Tobacco doesn’t just negatively impact the health of individuals; it also endangers the environment. When e-cigarettes and cigarette waste is not disposed of properly, it makes its way into the environment, polluting water, air and land with toxic chemicals, heavy metals and residual nicotine.

A very sensitive plant that requires a lot of care, and due to the fact that it’s also often grown as a monoculture, tobacco leaves the soil drained of nutrients. It is also not a very resilient crop. It is extremely vulnerable to diseases and pests, which is why it evolutionary developed nicotine as a natural pesticide. Surprisingly, nicotine was used as both a pesticide and herbicide until recently, when it was replaced with more effective chemical compounds.

The tobacco industry is responsible for producing much more than tobacco products and guilty of creating huge amounts of cigarettes and e-cigarettes waste every year. Regrettably, tobacco also kills up to half of its users annually and is the world’s single-biggest cause of preventable death.

Today, some points are worth pondering. One, tobacco growing endangers our environment and we should not fall for the industry’s attempt at distracting us from its environmental harm through donations to sustainability initiatives and reporting on environmental ‘standards’ that it often sets.

Two, the industry makes profits by destroying the environment and need to be held accountable and made to pay for it, including the cost of collecting these wastes. Three, we need to be aware of the environmental toxicity and dangers posed by discarding cigarettes and e-cigarettes and encourage tobacco users to quit so as to protect the environment.

Four, let the government encourage and help tobacco farmers, especially those with low skills and/or are tied by contracts with the tobacco companies, to switch to alternative crops. It can provide them with necessary knowledge and skills and access to tools that will help them improve their productivity.

Lastly, the most effective way of cutting off the supply of tobacco products would be to reduce the demand for them. Demand reduction measures should be aimed at raising awareness on the individual and environmental impacts of tobacco use. That will ultimately change consumer behaviours and play a critical role in tobacco control strategies.

Combining the environmental cost with proven detrimental health, social and economic impacts makes tobacco incompatible with other global public health concerns. As we face global challenges to preserve and sustain our future, the tobacco industries need to face up to their mess and clean it up.

Ms Kahiu is a substance use prevention advocate. [email protected]

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