Smoking kills 7 million people a year, and it scars the planet through deforestation, pollution and littering.
Details of the environmental cost of tobacco are revealed in a study released Wednesday by the World Health Organization, adding to the well-known costs to global health, which translate to a yearly loss of $1.4 trillion in health-care expenses and lost productivity.
From crop to pack, tobacco commands an intensive use of resources and forces the release of harmful chemicals in the soil and waterways, as well as significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Its leftovers linger, as tobacco litter is the biggest component of litter worldwide.
“Tobacco not only produces lung cancer in people, but it is a cancer to the lungs of the Earth,” said Dr. Armando Peruga, who previously coordinated the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative and now works as a consultant. He reviewed the new report for the WHO.
Commercial tobacco farming is a worldwide industry that involves 124 countries and occupies 4.3 million hectares of agricultural land. About 90% of it takes place in low-income countries, with China, Brazil and India as the largest producers.
Because tobacco is often a monocrop — grown without being rotated with other crops — the plants and the soil are weak in natural defenses and require larger amounts of chemicals for growth and protection from pests.
“Tobacco also takes away a lot of nutrients from the soil and requires massive amounts of fertilizer, a process that leads to degradation of the land and desertification, with negative consequences for biodiversity and wildlife,” Peruga said.