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GENEVA: In addition to its impact on public health, the tobacco industry is also the cause of considerable environmental damage, amid mountains of pollution and emissions that contribute to climate change, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Tuesday.

The tobacco industry is “one of the biggest polluters we know of”, explained WHO director of health promotion, Rüdiger Krech, presenting a report with “quite disastrous” conclusions.

The document, entitled “Tobacco, poison for our planet”, analyzes the environmental footprint of the sector as a whole, from the cultivation of plants to the manufacture of tobacco products, through consumption and waste.

While the industry is responsible for the loss of 600 million trees, tobacco growing uses 200,000 hectares of land and 22 billion tons of water a year and emits around 84 million tons of CO2, according to the report.

4,500 billion cigarette butts

“Tobacco products, which are the most thrown away waste on the planet, contain more than 7,000 chemical compounds that, once thrown away, spread into the environment”, continues Rüdiger Krech.

Each of the 4.5 trillion cigarette butts that end up in nature each year can pollute up to 100 liters of water, he points out.

The health dangers of tobacco are not limited to consumption and waste: almost a quarter of tobacco growers suffer from green tobacco disease, a form of nicotine poisoning through the skin.

In constant contact with tobacco leaves, these farmers consume the equivalent of the nicotine contained in 50 cigarettes a day, explains Krech, who highlights that the sector employs a large number of children.

“Imagine: a 12-year-old child exposed to 50 cigarettes a day”, he concludes.

According to the report, tobacco is often grown in very poor countries, where water and cultivated land are often scarce and where these crops replace crucial food production.

Tobacco cultivation is also responsible for about 5% of the world’s deforestation and contributes to the depletion of precious water reserves.

plastic pollution

A significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions also come from tobacco processing and transport – equivalent to one-fifth of the carbon footprint of air travel.

The WHO also warns that tobacco products – cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes – contribute significantly to the accumulation of plastic pollution in the world.

Cigarette filters contain traces of microplastics, those tiny fragments found in the world’s oceans, including at the bottom of the world’s deepest Mariana Trench – making it the world’s second largest source of plastic pollution.

Contrary to what the tobacco industry claims, there is, however, no evidence that these filters have a beneficial effect on health, stresses the WHO.

The UN agency therefore urges policymakers around the world to treat these filters as single-use plastics and to consider banning them.

She also regrets that the massive costs of cleaning up tobacco industry waste are borne by taxpayers around the world.

According to the report, China spends about US$2.6 billion annually to treat tobacco product waste. For India, the bill is 766 million dollars, while Brazil and Germany must pay 200 million dollars each.

The WHO therefore urges more countries to follow the example of France and Spain in adopting the polluter pays principle.

For Rüdiger Krech, it is important that “the industry really pays for the damage it is causing”.

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