By Dr. Himanshu A. Gupte
All of us are familiar with the media warning ‘Cigarette smoking is harmful to health’. But very often we fail to understand what this implies, and how deep the impact of tobacco is on humans as well as the environment.
On this World No Tobacco Day where the theme is to “Protect the Environment” let’s see how tobacco affects the environment at every stage of its life cycle:
Growth and Curing:
Tobacco is grown continuously on farms alongside other crops. As a result, tobacco farmers do not get a chance to turn over the soil; the quality of the latter deteriorates with time, affecting the health of the other crops. Moreover, the soil gets further degraded with the high use of pesticides and fertilizers used in the production of tobacco.
Organic pesticides, banned in the developed world, are still used in low- income countries, causing health issues for the farmers. Green tobacco sickness (GTS) is poisoning caused by the absorption of nicotine by the skin from the surface of wet tobacco plants. The curing of tobacco consumes wood which contributes to deforestation.
Manufacture and Distribution: Tobacco manufacture generates solid waste, nicotine-contaminated waste and chemical waste. The solid waste has to be transported to landfills, creating its own impact on fuel and transport systems. But chemical waste and nicotine-contaminated waste need to be sent for further treatment before they can be disposed of, burdening civic waste treatment systems and adding to the cost.
Paper, wood pulp and energy used in manufacturing the myriad tobacco products available in the market add to the strain on resources. Various chemicals and a large amount of energy go into the distribution of the finished product.
Tobacco smoke is a complex mixture of thousands of gaseous chemicals and micro droplets that are suspended in the air. The smoke pollutes the environment and is the most common and constant source of inhaled toxins.
Tobacco smoke is known to contribute carcinogens, other toxins and greenhouses to humans as well as to the environment.
Even non-users of tobacco are exposed to these dangers through inhalation of second-hand tobacco smoke given off by lit cigarettes and exhaled by smokers.
The second-hand smoke attaches itself to the dust particles in the air and to other surfaces in indoor environments, creating third-hand smoke residue which is long-lasting; it can find its way into landfills and passively enter the soil and possibly even the food chain.
The danger is not restricted to tobacco smoke. Many smokeless tobacco products also contain carcinogens and result in cancer of the mouth, oesophagus and pancreas.
Two-thirds of every smoked cigarette is discarded onto the ground. Each year, the world gets littered by about 400 million kilograms of waste tobacco products.Cigarette butts comprise the largest of these waste products.
But there are also other waste products associated with tobacco use that litter the Earth. These include packaging materials, paper, inks, glues and foil. They end up everywhere, dirtying our buildings, streets, rivers and drains.
And what about the dirty red splotches of tobacco juice on walls and public spaces? They are an eyesore to say the least. The tobacco that people spit out in public places can spread airborne diseases.
The best and most effective way to overcome these problems is to quit consuming tobacco. There are tremendous economic and health benefits of avoiding tobacco, including reduced insurance premiums for non-tobacco users.
There are various healthcare and non-healthcare programmes for tobacco users to quit their habit. Counselling and follow-up services are provided by trained tobacco treatment counsellors.
It takes approximately one entire tree to make just 300 cigarettes. The entire life cycle of a single cigarette requires approximately 3.7 litres of water. The average smoker can save up to 74 litres of water per day if they quit smoking. Therefore, quitting the use of tobacco should be seen not as an option but as a necessity, both for the individual and the environment.
Dr. Himanshu A. Gupte, Vice President – Health, Narotam Sekhsaria Foundation.