The tobacco industry: the latest findings from scientific research

This year at the European Respiratory Society’s International Congress, researchers presented the latest updates on the tobacco industry and its impact on health and the environment.

Global burden of tobacco use

The data and evidence shared at the ERS International Congress shows the global trends and impact of tobacco use.

Studies show 20.3 billion cigarettes were smoked per day in 2019. In the same year, 7.69 million deaths were due to smoking, with 77.5% of this being in lower- or middle-income countries (LMICs).

Globally, 1 in 5 men and 1 in 20 women smoke.

On average, smokers lose 20 years of life expectancy in comparison to never-smokers. It is never too late to quit. By quitting at 30, 40 or 50 years of age you can gain 10, 9 and 6 years of life expectancy, respectively.

In 2019, the number of people using chewing tobacco grew to 273.9 million. Chewing tobacco has been linked to cancers around the mouth and throat. However, there is a lack of studies into chewing tobacco. As it is being used more, there needs to be more research on its effects.

Overall conclusions
  • When adjusted for age, smoking is decreasing; however, the absolute number of smokers is increasing.
  • The increase in absolute number of smokers is disproportionately high in LMICs.
  • More research is needed to understand trends in chewing tobacco.
  • It is never too late to quit smoking.

Environmental damage caused by tobacco farming and manufacturing

Tobacco cultivation requires a large area of land and a temperature between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius. It also requires an atmospheric humidity of 80-85%, as well as soil with a high level of nitrogen. Tobacco is mostly grown in LMICs. Asia is the continent taking the lead in tobacco production. Pesticides and other chemicals are using when growing tobacco. Some of these pesticides are so strong and poisonous, not only to the environment but also to farmers’ health, that they are banned in some countries. These chemicals can also get into water sources and contaminate them. This has long-lasting and toxic effects to the local populations and ecosystems.

The 6 stages of tobacco ‘from cradle to grave’ and their environmental effects:

  • Tobacco leaf growing
    • Deforestation due to land clearing
    • High water and pesticide use
  • Tobacco curing
    • High demand for wood to cure tobacco leaves results in more deforestation.
  • Cigarette and other tobacco product manufacturing
    • Greenhouse gases emitted and high amount of waste produced in manufacturing process.
  • Tobacco transport and distribution
    • High emissions of greenhouse gases as the products are transported globally.
  • Consumption
    • Toxic residue from tobacco stays in the environment after cigarette consumption.
  • Post-consumer waste
    • Cigarette butts and toxic third-hand smoke materials pollute the environment.
Overall conclusions

The tobacco industry is responsible for 5% of annual deforestation. This is not only for the growing process but also for creating rolling paper and packaging. It has led to a huge loss of biodiversity, the regeneration periods of which are between 30 and 50 years.

To make one cigarette requires 3.7 litres of water, leading to a loss of precious water resources. The tobacco residue in cigarette butts also pollutes water and the filter is mostly non-biodegradable. Every year, 80 million tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted by the tobacco industry. It is a direct contributor to the climate crisis.

Greenwashing of the tobacco industry

Greenwashing is the practice used by controversial industries to market their goods or brand image as environmentally friendly to increase product sales. It can also be an attempt to divert attention from their environmentally damaging practices.

How does greenwashing link to the tobacco industry?

The tobacco industry greenwashes its reputation and products through various programmes including beach clean-ups, ‘ecofriendly’ product marketing and funding environmental and disaster-relief organisations in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). They want to position themselves as responsible corporations who care about the environment and sustainability. Various tobacco companies say on their websites that they are aiming ‘to reduce the health impact’ of their business in an attempt to hide the fact that they are still killing both people and the environment.

Some tobacco companies go as far as to compare their carbon footprint to that of tea or chocolate, for example. The World Health Organization says that these companies often miss out the fact that neither of those products kill half of their daily users as tobacco does.