Environmental effects of China smoking

Tobacco and cigarettes are bad. Most people would agree with this statement, even in a world full of different opinions. Over seven million tobacco-related deaths are seven million examples that iterate its devastating effects. That’s the equivalent of wiping out the entire population of Ireland and Qatar, every year. This total includes the nine-hundred thousand killed by second-hand smoking. On average, cigarettes shorten a smoker’s life by ten years.

Global economic losses of $500 billion per annum due to smoking would pay off the UK national debt in just four years. Cigarette smoking is eating through the public health and economy of China, the very country that is set to dominate the world economy. At the current rate, the “tobacco epidemic” in China is set to kill 200 million people by the end of the century.

Chinese smoke over 2.5 trillion cigarettes every year

Cigarette consumption in China, like its economy, has seen a rapid rise in the recent decades. Average consumer smokes over 50% more cigarette today than in 1980, meaning that over 2.5 trillion cigarettes are lit in China annually. These staggering statistics mean that Chinese smoke around 40% of total cigarettes smoked in the world.

The damage to the public health and economic losses caused by tobacco and smoking is well monitored. Although, the same isn’t true for the monitoring of the environmental impacts caused by tobacco.

Environmental damage

China produces more than 2.5 trillion cigarettes to meet the demand of their smokers. They invest 1.5 million hectares agricultural land – nearly one and a half times the size of Jamaica – to harvest 3.2 million tonnes of tobacco leaves. All of these inevitably leave their mark. Cigarette smoking not only severely harms the human health but also damages the environment.

Growing such a huge amount of tobacco requires a significant amount of arable land. While China has taken massive strides away from malnutrition in the recent years, it’s still a big problem. The land used to grow tobacco could be used to cultivate crops to feed its undernourished population. Another essential thing to grow food is water. Agriculture uses around 70% fresh water available to us. Although tobacco plant grows better in drier conditions, China tobacco farming still uses a lot of fresh waters, while its habitats suffer from a water scarcity.

Tobacco farming

Tobacco is usually cultivated as a mono-crop, which means that it’s repeatedly grown on a large, dedicated farmland. And mono-crops are extremely vulnerable to attacks from plant pests. Therefore, a potential disease in one tobacco plant is likely to spread quickly and infect plants in an entire area. To minimise this risk, tobacco farmers spray the fields heavily with pesticides, which harm human health and the environment.

Tobacco is grown as a mono-crop. Resources used to grow tobacco could be used to cultivate crops

Tobacco farming also uses more chemicals in the form of fertilisers and growth regulators, which ensure the plants grow and ripen at the same time. All of these factors contribute to the rapid depletion of the soil health. Therefore, tobacco farms move to new lands for sustained cultivation. New farmlands are made by cutting-down trees and areas of woodlands. Like oceans, forests are also great “carbon sinks”. Trees absorb the atmospheric carbon dioxide and release oxygen to carry out photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. It’s known to raise global atmospheric temperatures speeding up the process of climate change.

Together, these factors not only severely detrimental to agriculture but also have adverse effects on the environment, ecosystem and atmosphere. Redirecting resources – used to grow tobacco, including land water, fertilisers and pesticides – towards growing crops would be better for the environment. And we would have a better chance of beating world hunger to feed an ever growing world population.

Air pollution

China’s long struggle with poor air quality is well monitored. Decreasing air quality throughout the world, including in China, is mainly due to large-scale industrial and urban emissions. But it would be foolish to completely ignore the contribution of tobacco to air pollution. A single cigarette contains hundreds of ingredients. When lit up, combustion of tobacco and paper produces thousands of chemicals in the cigarette smoke. Even though the cigarette smoke is visible, numerous toxic and carcinogenic chemicals are invisible to the naked eye. Carcinogens usually cause substantial damage to the genome leading to gene mutations, which may cause cancer.

Cigarette smoke contains several thousands of chemicals, including nicotine, tar and other toxins

There’re several other ways tobacco causes air pollution. For example, smoking is one of the leading factors that initiate wildfires and fires at home. China itself has been a victim of one of the biggest wildfires ever, which started from an unknown source. Burning materials emit several pollution particles in the smoke; many of these are smaller than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5). These particles are too small to see with the naked eye. They can bypass filters in the nose and respiratory tracts to enter deep into the lungs and cause severe health damage. Fire smoke also releases a significant amount of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas and the major contributor to the rising global temperatures – into the atmosphere.

Industrialisation of tobacco, especially in China, also adds to the increasing air pollution. Air pollution sources from the tobacco industry include emissions generated by tobacco factories, transportation of tobacco products and tobacco farming. Inevitably, a combined effect of these factors has a markedly adverse effect on the environment.

Cigarette litter

Air pollution aside, cigarettes are also prolific generators of litters. Most cigarettes these days contain the “filter” part, which hit the markets in the 1950s. These cigarette filters were introduced to reduce the uptake of tar, nicotine and other harmful chemicals, effectively to make cigarettes “safer”. The problem is that the filter doesn’t work well enough to make a difference in reducing the harm smoking causes. Although cigarette filters reduce the measurements for tar and nicotine on the machine, it encourages consumers to inhale deeper. They’re there to fuel smokers’ addiction and make it harder to quit.

To make it clear, cigarette filters have no benefit except it prevents loose tobacco from entering the smoker’s mouth. It’s merely a smart marketing strategy introduced by the tobacco industry following findings that tobacco causes harm to the human health. Those marketing campaigns must’ve been good. Even after several decades, many still believe that filters make cigarettes safer.

Cigarette filters take over a decade to degrade naturally, making them the most abundant waste on earth

Another issue with cigarette filters is that they end up as litter and just stay there. Cigarette filters are primarily made up of cellulose acetate that takes many years to degrade naturally. Discarded cigarette filters end up in the environment, mostly ending up in the marine and freshwater systems, where they leach toxins that harm aquatic lives. A study reported that a single filter from a smoked cigarette leaches enough toxins to kill half of marine and fresh water fishes in a litre of water. It’s difficult to translate this finding to assess how leachate from cigarette filters affect aquatic organisms. But, it’s easy to imagine that over 5.5 trillion cigarettes smoked each year worldwide and 2.5 trillion smoked in China could have a profound effect on the marine and freshwater ecosystem.

Cigarette filters are by far the most abundant waste found on beaches and oceans. However, the tobacco industry distances itself from the responsibility of tobacco disposal. Therefore, smokers and authorities are left to clean up most of the cigarette waste. And the fact that cigarette filters are already the most abundant litter means that authorities have a lot of catching up to do. Introducing indoor smoking bans in many countries have made bars much more pleasant to visit; China also introduced a smoking ban. But as reported, authorities may not impose it strictly. Implementing indoor smoking ban means smokers are more likely to litter the outdoors with cigarette waste. Cigarette filters can also be recycled into various plastic products. Although recycling facilities are available in some countries, only a low percentage is recycled, and the facilities aren’t available in everywhere.

Cigarette filters find their way into our water systems, leach toxic chemicals and harm aquatic lives

The tobacco industry has considered using biodegradable filters. While this will reduce litter, toxins contained in the cigarette filter will still release into water systems and harm aquatic lives. To start with, banning cigarette filters is the best option to reduce litter and help the environment. It also makes cigarettes less appealing, and therefore fewer people are likely to take up smoking.

India imposed a plastic packaging ban on tobacco products, which reduces litter and makes tobacco products less marketable. A Recent introduction of plain cigarette packaging in the UK  and other countries also makes cigarettes less marketable. The plastic pouch on cigarette packets should also be banned. The best way to eliminate the environmental damage caused by tobacco is to get everyone to quit.

It seems that one country contributes most to the global tobacco emissions. With right national strategies, China could pave the way to kerb environmental effects of tobacco. We’ll just have to wait and see how China acts, but I wouldn’t hold my breath just yet.

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