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Environmental Impact of Tobacco

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Published: Thu, 17 May 2018

  • Price Anders

Environmental Biology

Tobacco use is the single largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States. According to the 2010 U.S. Surgeon General’s report, approximately 443,000 U.S. adults die from smoking-related illnesses each year. In addition, smoking has been estimated to cost the United States $96 billion in direct medical expenses and $97 billion in lost productivity annually (Current Cigarette). These statistics are staggering yes, but beyond the mortal and economic effects of tobacco there is another overlooked downside to the continued use of cigarettes. This is the effects cigarette smoking has on the environment. In this term paper I will discuss the environmental effects of tobacco growing pesticides, tobacco and deforestation, the pollution involved with tobacco products, climate change and tobacco, and tobacco’s effect on food production. I will also discuss possible solutions to this tobacco problem.

The pesticides used in the growing of tobacco have the potential to be very dangerous to our soil and wild life. Tobacco plants are delicate and susceptible to many plant diseases. Because of this, farmers who grow tobacco are required to use high levels of fertilizer, herbicide and pesticides (Healton). Among the pesticides commonly used are Imidacloprid, Dichloropropene, Aldicarb, and Methyl Bromide:

  • Imidacloprid is extremely poisonous to fish, birds, and bees. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, Imidacloprid could potentially contaminate the groundwater surrounding crop land where it is used (Schmitt).
  • Dichloropropene is an extremely dangerous soil fumigant that causes breathing problems, dermal and ocular irritation as well as kidney damage. It is widely used amongst tobacco growers in the United States (Schmitt).
  • Aldicarb is deathly poisonous. One one-thousandth of one ounce is a lethal amount for any human. Aldicarb is also toxic to fish, birds, and bees as well as earthworms. It has been detected in the groundwater of 28 states in the US. In the US it was approved for use on tobacco plants as recently as 2007 (Schmitt).
  • Methyl Bromide is an Ozone diminishing chemical. It is frequently used to disinfect soil before planting the tobacco seeds. In 1997, over five and a half million pounds of methyl bromide was used on tobacco fields worldwide (Schmitt).

The majority of tobacco is grown in underdeveloped countries. These countries lack environmental laws, and the farmers don’t have the proper equipment or training for the usage of these dangerous pesticides. Not only are these farmers at risk from contact with these pesticides, but the harmful chemicals sink into the soil, eventually finding their way in to rivers and streams polluting the drinking water and many food chains. These pesticides could also be causing the formation pesticide resistant insects likes flies and mosquitoes. This could make the controlling of diseases such as malaria practically impossible (McLaren). In most western countries there are laws to protect tobacco farmers from any contact with pesticides. Nevertheless using these pesticides still poses a threat to humans, as well as our ecosystems. The chemicals used in tobacco pesticides have also been detected in groundwater in the United States. This is believed to be the cause of many wildlife deaths (McLaren). As you can see the negative effects of these pesticides are a huge problem for our environment and should be better controlled.

While pesticides are a serious problem involved with the production of tobacco products, another major effect that tobacco manufacturing is having on our environment is deforestation. In underdeveloped countries, trees are cut down regularly to provide more space for tobacco farming, and even more trees are chopped down for use throughout the curing process. After reaping, the tobacco plants must be dried, to preserve them for storing, transportation and treating. Sun drying involves leaving the tobacco to dry naturally, but this process can take many months. Most tobacco growers flue cure their tobacco, which involves hanging the plant in specialized curing sheds where hot air removes any moister from the leaves (Healton). Flue curing takes only five to ten days and farmers usually burn wood to heat up the air. Not to mention the wood that is used to build these special sheds and make the paper for smoking tobacco products.

Because of all the wood required in this process over 600 million trees are cut down for tobacco production every year. In areas where tobacco farming is common, the further loss of trees causes the land to become even more susceptible to desertification. For example in Brazil, the harmful consequences of tobacco farming are becoming visibly clear in the form of forest destruction, erosion and extremely low water levels (Assistance and Management). When tobacco farmers were confronted with diminishing sources of wood, the tobacco industry tried to address the issue by convincing the tobacco farmers to plant trees. However, the farms set up by tobacco companies in many countries contain non-native, quick growing Eucalyptus and Cypress trees that negatively affect the ecosystems and lower the water levels even more (Assistance and Management). It is clear that the deforestation involved with production of tobacco is very harmful to the environment and needs to be addressed.

The next harmful effect of tobacco I wanted to address is the pollution that is involved with the manufacturing and use of tobacco products. The manufacturing of cigarettes and cigars results in large amounts of waste like tobacco slurries, solvents, oils, paper, wood, plastics, packaging materials and airborne pollution. Making cigarettes creates solid, liquid, and airborne waste. These are major causes for environmental concern, but the chemical pollution is the greatest danger to our environment. In the US it was found that the manufacturing of cigarettes produced more than 27 million kilograms of chemical waste. 2 million of which was released into our atmosphere and environment (Schmitt). Not only are the chemicals involved in the production of tobacco products polluting our environment, but cigarette and cigar smoke are also known pollutants. Tobacco smoke is categorized as a Class A carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency (Schmitt). Tobacco smoke also contains traces of radioactive material.

When a cigarette is smoked this radiation isn’t just spread into the atmosphere, but it is also leached into the soil and waterways from the butts littered by smokers. Cigarette filters are made from a certain type of plastic that takes over 10 years to break down and decompose. It is estimated that around four and a half trillion cigarette butts are littered around the world every year, and have killed millions of birds, fish and other animals (Schmitt). Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world. According to the Ocean Conservancy 2009 Report of Ocean Debris, cigarette materials accounted for nearly 30% of the total amount of debris collected in their annual clean up. That is more than double the numbers of any other item listed in the report (McLaren). The negative effects of tobacco pollution are extremely visible in our everyday world, and should be taken care of immediately.

Another issue that is a little less visible than pollution is the effect tobacco manufacturing and use has on our climate. Every stage of cigarette production and consumption advances global warming, from the growing and curing of tobacco, to the manufacturing, and lastly to the smoking and littering of the finished product, not to mention the deforestation involved. The cutting and burning of wood and other fuels during the curing process involved in the manufacturing of tobacco ads to the global warming. Also tobacco farmers regularly burn trees to clear the land. This burning releases high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This burning also means fewer trees available to absorb the excess carbon dioxide being created in the first place. Lastly, cigarette smoke also contains carbon dioxide and methane, thus contributing even more to the greenhouse effect and global warming (Healton). Although effects of smoking on our climate are more long term, they still need to be addressed.

The final issue I want discuss is the impact tobacco has on food production. When farmers is less developed countries grow tobacco, there is less land available for food crops. Tobacco growing is rotational with other food crops, but tobacco makes soil extremely susceptible to wind and water damage which means that soil will sometimes be incompatible for food crops (Schmitt). Not only does the soil become unfit, but tobacco plants also use way more nutrients than other crops. This causes more soil degradation. It has been estimated that 10 to 20 million people could be fed by food crops grown instead of tobacco (McLaren). Although there is not much information behind this specific issue, the potential benefits of a halt in the growing of tobacco are very evident.

Will all of the negative effects smoking has on our environment it is easy to see that something must be done. The easiest way to prevent further harm from being done would be to pass a law stating that the manufacturing of tobacco products is no longer allowed due to its harmful effects on our environment, our people, and our economy. This would eventually halt the growing and curing of tobacco crops because there would be no demand. Unfortunately passing these laws is easier said than done. Policies to increase the price of cigarettes and to restrict smoking in public places are much more feasible and are effective in encouraging many to quit. This is a step in the right direction, but smokers often find it difficult to overcome their dependence without help (Department of Health). Effective treatments to promote smoking cessation are available and need to be implemented in primary care, hospitals, pharmacies and other health settings.


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