Tobacco: An Environmental and Occupational Drag

The dirty habit takes a heavy toll on the environment and farmers

| October 4, 2007


Billions of times a day, a match is struck and a cigarette puffed. Although US state legislatures and European governments are stamping out public smoking at an ever-quickening pace, smoking's hazards don't start with the flick of a Bic and stop with a final drag. Instead, tobacco begins its many chapters of pernicious destruction on farms and workers across the globe and ends with the trodden butt on the street.

For each five minutes of nicotine-fueled joy, vast numbers of trees are cut down across the world in order to produce the crop. According to Bryan Farrell of In These Times , close to 600 million trees are cut down each year to drive tobacco production -- as fuel to dry the plant's leaves or for the paper that packages and advertises cigarettes. That means that one in eight of the trees that are being chopped down worldwide are harvested to grow and cure tobacco. Deforestation has led to desertification in heavy tobacco-producing economies, such as Uganda, and contributed to elevated levels of the climate-change culprit carbon dioxide.

What's more, production and consumption of tobacco leaves create waste problems that must be handled by public funds. According to the United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO), 954 million kilograms of filters -- made of thousands nonbiodegradable plastic fibers -- were manufactured in 1998 alone, and a British anti-litter group asserts that around 40 percent of litter is cigarette butts. It's a major burden on this side of the Atlantic as well: As the environmental advocacy group Californians Against Waste points out, all the litter is costing US taxpayers billions of dollars in cleanup every year.

The effects of farming tobacco take a human toll as well. Beyond the billions of dollars spent on health care for smokers every year, the prolonged exposure of tobacco farmers to pesticides and nicotine has caused concern all the way up to the WHO. In a 2004 paper, the WHO detailed the effects of pesticide exposure and nicotine sickness on impoverished farm laborers, many of whom are children. According to the WHO, "It would take the average tobacco farmer in Brazil around six years to earn the equivalent of what [British American Tobacco's] director earns in a single day, or 2,140 years to earn his annual salary." There are also concerns about overexposure to pesticides leading to depression and suicides. But, as Farrell notes, the cause could easily be linked to the high amounts of debt often incurred by tobacco farmers.



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