Tobacco is not just a threat to health, it threatens the environment.
Dr Sharon Nyatsanza – Deputy Director, National Council Against Smoking.
On Tuesday, 31 May, countries around the world will mark World No Tobacco Day, which this year highlights the devastating effects of tobacco on our environment. The World Health Organisation's theme for this year is "Tobacco: Threat to our environment." While tobacco is a leading cause of death, illness and impoverishment, tobacco also endangers the environment. The campaign raises awareness among the public on the environmental impact of tobacco – from cultivation, production, distribution and waste. It gives tobacco users yet another reason to quit!
Reducing tobacco consumption needs to be identified as a key lever for achieving all of the Sustainable Development Goals, not just those directly related to health. From start to finish, the tobacco life cycle is an "overwhelmingly polluting and damaging process", from deforestation, erosion, water pollution, biodiversity damage to disposal of manufacturing waste and littering of cigarette butts.
Tobacco's total annual carbon footprint is 84 million tonnes. Clearly, the tobacco industry contributes significantly to climate change. Don't fall for the tobacco industry's attempt to try and distract from its environmental harms by greenwashing their products through donations to sustainability initiatives and reporting on environmental "standards", standards they often set themselves, says the WHO.
Cigarette butts remain the most littered item globally, with a staggering 65% of cigarette butts ending up as litter. That is equivalent to over 15 billion cigarette butts tossed away on South African streets.
Unfortunately, tobacco companies are not held responsible for the environmental cost of the whole life cycle of its products. Instead, they have shifted this responsibility to the taxpayer – South Africa spends over R1 Billion on waste management and clearing marine pollution resulting from tobacco each year, further depleting our public funds.
We need to make the tobacco industry clean up their mess. The tobacco industry is making profit by destroying the environment and needs to be held accountable for the environmental destruction and made to pay for the waste and damages, including to recover the cost of collecting these wastes.
The full cost of tobacco on the environment should be borne by the tobacco companies. We call on government to compel tobacco companies to use only biodegradable filters and to bear the full cost of management and disposal of cigarette waste.
The World No Tobacco Day campaign calls on governments and policy makers to step up legislation, including implementing and strengthening existing schemes to make producers responsible for the environmental and economic costs of tobacco product waste. Governments and policy makers should support tobacco farmers to switch to alternative, more sustainable livelihoods to reduce the environmental impact of tobacco growing, curing and manufacturing while continue to implement tobacco control measures.
This World No Tobacco Day, we are reminded of the negative impact of tobacco and the urgent need to reduce tobacco use. Tobacco is far much more than just a health issue, and it is clear that cutting down on tobacco production and consumption will improve people's health and the health of our planet. South Africa must finalise the Control of Tobacco and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill, 2018 with urgency. The delay in finalising the Bill is detrimental to the nation's health, economy and also our environment.
Every tobacco product produced and used wastes precious resources that our existence depends on. Tobacco smoke contributes to higher air pollution levels and contains three kinds of greenhouse gases. Quit tobacco now, for your health and the health of our planet.
Smokers can call the NCAS Quitline on 011 720 3145 or send a WhatsApp message to 072 766 4812 for advice on quitting smoking.