The huge costs of Big tobacco’s environmental harms

Thursday, 23 March 2023

Aside from the already well-known devastating health costs of the tobacco industry, its environmental costs are equally important, yet relatively unknown.

Tobacco is unlike any other product. Its disastrous impact on our health and environment was highlighted in a report by the WHO on 2022 World No Tobacco Day. When used as intended, tobacco is a product that kills over 8 million people around the world. Its production is responsible for 5% of global deforestation, requires heavy usage of pesticides and fertilizers, and depletes soils, thus greatly worsening food insecurity. Tobacco production yields two million tons of solid waste annually, much of which consists of toxic chemicals. Tobacco microplastic-based filters, notably, are the most littered item in the world and the first source of plastics found in our oceans. 

What does this cost the EU? 

After a long period of darkness around such costs, key data about the tobacco industry’s environmental costs in the EU was finally unveiled by the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC), and the conservative estimates are quite shivering. The estimated economic losses amount to 357 billion euros across the EU, excluding litter management costs, which are expected to be higher than waste management costs. The latter costs EU taxpayers approximately 1.35 billion euros, while the marine pollution caused by tobacco products' waste amounts to 24 billion euros. These safe estimates don’t even cover health hazards on the environment, nor account for the related subsequent costs of human health preserving expenditure.

In other words, the tobacco industry’s environmental costs in the EU are almost equal to its largest budget item, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which accounts for approximately 34% of the EU budget, with a total spending of 386 billion euros over the whole 2021-2027 period.The tobacco industry must be held accountable for such economic losses, in line with the polluter pays’ principle, which requires the polluter to bear the cost of pollution. But most importantly, this environmental disaster needs to stop. A large part of the monumental societal and biodiversity loss that tobacco product waste engenders is caused by cigarette filters. That is why the most pressing remediation measure identified by the Stop Tobacco Pollution Alliance (STPA), to which the Smoke Free Partnership (SFP) is a member, is a ban on cigarette filters. 

 Debunking the myth of cigarette filters

The vast majority of people believe cigarette filters protect human health, or at least reduce harm. This is the result of fraud from the tobacco industry which dates back to the 1950s when the industry’s narrative about the limited health dangers of smoking started being debunked. To reassure the public opinion about the safety of its products, the tobacco industry introduced filters, a deceptive marketing design feature allegedly making smoking « safer ». As explained by the STPA in a New York Times article, research shows that cigarette filters result in deeper inhalation of toxins, which has been linked to an increased risk of adenocarcinoma, a more aggressive type of lung cancer. Internal documents of tobacco companies revealed that filters are defective because their plastic fibers tend to fall out, thus ending up in the lungs of smokers.

A ban won’t be enough

Even if a ban is a first and most urgent step as it addresses the main source of tobacco post-consumption waste while protecting human health, more will need to be done. Cigarette butts take up to 10 years to decompose and the billions remaining in the environment will need to be tackled. Even without filters, cigarette butts would still be a major source of litter and pollution, as they contain toxic chemicals that can leach into soil and water, harm wildlife, and pollute the environment. 

To fully address the tobacco industry's environmental impact, a comprehensive approach is needed that addresses all stages of the tobacco production and consumption process, from cultivation to disposal. Moreover, e-waste from novel and emerging products such as heated tobacco products is increasing exponentially, and a significant portion of such products is designed for single use.  

It is time to stop Big tobacco’s greenwashing

These newer products are being marketed as sustainable, notably through Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting metrics. The industry uses them to feed a transformation narrative aimed at distracting consumers and policymakers from the health hazards and environmental impacts of tobacco use. Japan Tobacco International for example talks about how responsible disposal of materials, including plastics” is a key part of its core sustainability goals. The alleged « harm reduction » of such products adds to the narrative of the industry pledging its commitment to a « smoke-free world ». On that end, it can be useful to remember that cigarettes are still by far the industry’s largest segment of revenues with a market volume forecast of US$228.00bn in 2023, and over the next years, cigarette sales are expected to steadily increase across Europe. 

The tobacco industry’s greenwashing is one of the main obstacles to the full realization of the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan under the European Green Deal. As it stands, the tobacco industry is leveraging the lack of knowledge about Art 5.3 WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), to which the EU and its Member States are parties, among environmental policy stakeholders, to gain a seat at the table with policymakers. This enables the industry to work closely with decision-makers, to infringe on Article 5.3 WHO FCTC which requires its interactions with policymakers to be limited to what is « strictly necessary » and fully transparent. As a reminder, the Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) of the tobacco industry is, according to the WHO, an inherent contradiction, and should be banned. 

The UN Plastics Treaty: a key opportunity

The EU adopted the Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive in 2019, introducing a list of single-use plastic items to be banned to protect the environment. This list did not include cigarette filters, mainly because of the common misconception that filters help protect human health. Today, there is enough evidence to add cigarette filters to the category of products to be banned. The World Health Organization (WHO) itself called upon policy-makers to treat cigarette filters as what they are, single-use plastics, and consider banning them.

The next opportunity to remedy this omission is the UN Plastics Treaty, due to be tabled in 2025. The next round of negotiations, INC-2, will take place in Paris from 29 May to 2 June 2023. On that occasion, SFP will actively work to ensure the key recommendations of STPA are pushed forward by negotiators. These are namely: 

- A ban on cigarette filters, which do not protect the health, as well as the tobacco industry’s other single-use toxic plastics (such as disposable vapes);

- Making the tobacco industry pay for past and future damage to the environment and health, following the "polluter pays’ principle”, while protecting decision-making and implementation phases from the industry’s interference;

- A ban on all forms of advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco and emerging tobacco products on all types of platforms, including digital media, and to include in the scope of the ban the so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities of the tobacco industry;

- The application of Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on tobacco industry interference, which requires governments to ensure the transparency of interactions with it and limits these relationships to what is strictly necessary.


For more background, see also :

Uncovering the truths behind the tobacco industry’s deception - The New York Times


The Stop Tobacco Pollution Alliance (STPA)’s briefing on tobacco in plastics policies



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