tobacco doesn’t just kill people – it kills everything it touches

It’s not a secret, at least not anymore, that tobacco comes with significant health risks, but are there also serious environmental consequences from the production of tobacco products? 

While only about 1% of arable land is globally devoted to tobacco growth, much of that growth today is in low and middle income countries. The amount of land devoted to these plantations in China, Malawi and Tanzania has doubled since 1960 causing loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and degradation, water pollution and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In addition to pesticides and fertilizers finding their way into drinking water, tobacco plants are notorious for depleting soil nutrients. This is because they use higher levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than other crops.

In these same countries, heavy lobbying efforts from multinational companies are responsible for diverting land that would have been used for subsistence farming, to the cash crop; tobacco. The consequences of the expanded tobacco crops are short term gains for a few big tobacco companies and long term social, economic, health and environmental degradation for the rest of us and our environment.

Farm workers, especially child laborers and minorities, fall prey to low wages and unfair labor practices. Additionally, these people are at a high risk of nicotine toxicity from handling tobacco leaves without protection.

Tobacco production produces millions of tons of non –recyclable nicotine contaminated solid waste as well as chemical waste such as ammonia, hydrochloric acid, toluene and methyl ethyl ketone. The amount of these discarded products increases every year.

The World Health Organization recommends several ways to address these issues: First, they recommend tracking and dealing with the health effects of tobacco farmers and work and create strategies to help free farmers and child laborers from unfair and unsafe farming practices. They recommend strengthening regulations to prevent deforestation. Also, forcing tobacco companies to take responsibility for all the waste created from producing and post-consumer use of tobacco products. Additionally, the WHO recommends increasing litigation to force recovery of economic and environmental costs of tobacco production. Finally, they endorse enforcing existing laws and regulations applying to tobacco production, transport and management of post-consumer waste.

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