WHO says big tobacco causes massive environmental harm

The UN agency called for the tobacco industry to compensate for its products that contribute to greenhouse gases blamed for climate change. However, it did not specify the amount of compensation.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

An employee holds tobacco leaves during cigarettes manufacturing process in the British American Tobacco Cigarette Factory (BAT) in Bayreuth, southern Germany, April 30, 2014.

Tobacco growing causes "massive harm" to the environment through extensive use of chemicals, energy and water, and pollution from manufacturing and distribution, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

The United Nations agency called for the tobacco industry to compensate for its products that contribute to greenhouse gases blamed for climate change, but gave no estimate of the damage.

The ecological footprint goes far beyond the effects of cigarette smoke, the WHO said in its first report on tobacco's impact on the environment. "From start to finish, the tobacco life cycle is an overwhelmingly polluting and damaging process."

"We've not estimated the full economic impact of what's happening to the environment, that will require more studies," Vinayak Prasad, WHO tobacco control coordinator, told a news briefing.

Tobacco use kills 7 million people a year, according to the WHO, which marks World No Tobacco Day on Wednesday.

A man lights a cigarette along a road in Mumbai, India, October 26, 2016. (Reuters Archive)

It drew up a landmark treaty in 2005, now ratified by 179 countries, that calls for a ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship, and taxes to discourage use.

Tobacco plants require large quantities of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fumigants to control pest or disease outbreaks.

"Many of these chemicals are so harmful to both the environment and farmers’ health that they are banned in some countries," the report said.

Vast quantities of wood are burned to cure tobacco leaves, contributing to deforestation. Some big growers like China and Zimbabwe are also using coal, which emits carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming, the WHO said.

Millions of kilogrammes of non-biodegradable cigarette butts are discarded every year, it said.

Tobacco waste contains over 7,000 toxic chemicals that poison the environment, including human carcinogens, it added.

Reports of major cigarette companies

Japan Tobacco Inc, Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco report on their use of environmental resources and waste streams, but the self-reported data is "limited and opaque," the report noted.

Michelle McKeown, Japan Tobacco (JTI) corporate communications vice-president, accused the WHO of "trying to hijack the climate change agenda" from other UN agencies and its leadership of being "off-track."

"The report is misleading and disconnected with reality," she said in an emailed response. "Of all major crops, tobacco is one that requires publishing comprehensive environmental data.

The WHO said it should be mandatory for tobacco companies to supply information on environmental damage.

"All producers should be required to compensate for the environmental harms caused by deforestation, water use, waste etc through offsets in order to ultimately reduce the long-term ecological harm their business causes," it said.