Tobacco's environmental threat

Tobacco's environmental threat

A crow picks up a cigarette butt in Bangkok's Lumpini Park. (Photo: Patipat Janthong)
A crow picks up a cigarette butt in Bangkok's Lumpini Park. (Photo: Patipat Janthong)

Tobacco kills our environment, not just people. Tobacco causes over 8 million deaths every year globally and 81,000 in Thailand. Simultaneously, each year, tobacco destroys a vast landmass roughly the size of 44,000 Suan Luang Rama IX parks, the largest green park in Bangkok, causes massive deforestation and pollutes our environment.

This year's World No Tobacco Day, observed today, addresses environmental damage throughout the entire tobacco cycle -- from farming, production, usage to disposal.

Thailand is the second-largest tobacco-leaf producer in Asean and the 16th in the world. Tobacco cultivation requires more toxic agrochemicals (pesticides, herbicides and insecticides) than non-tobacco crops. Thailand is also highlighted as one of the countries that have suffered tobacco-driven habitat destruction, according to "Tobacco and its environmental impact: an overview" by the WHO.

After being harvested, tobacco leaves are cured (dried) by wood fires, a process unnecessary for other crops. One tree is required for every 300 cigarettes. Thailand produces 36 billion cigarettes annually, escalating deforestation and contributing to the drop in Thailand's forest cover to 31.7% in 2019 from 53.5% in 1961.

Extensive paper use also advances deforestation: globally, cigarette wrapping and packaging consume 6.4km of paper every hour. Overall, an estimated 600 million trees are chopped down every year for tobacco cultivation, curing and production.

Greenhouse gases from tobacco smoke contribute to climate change. Smoking three cigarettes produces a PM2.5 level 10 times higher than the amount released by a diesel car engine idling for 30 minutes. Worldwide, 7.4 trillion cigarettes and other smoking products were consumed in 2019. In Thailand, 39 billion cigarettes are smoked yearly or over 100 million sticks every day. The magnitude of tobacco consumption suggests enormous amounts of pollutants are being emitted into the atmosphere.

Nearly two-thirds of what remains after smoking, or a cigarette butt, ends up on the street, children's parks, beaches, rivers and oceans. Cigarette butts are made of plastic (cellulose acetate) with more than 4,000 toxic chemicals. Every year around the world, 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are dumped in our environment, making them the world's number one littered plastic item. Discarded cigarette butts harm the ecosystem, affect flooding by clogging the drains and also cause forest fires. Cigarette waste littered annually in Thailand amounts to the weight of nearly 6,000 Asian elephants.

Discarded butts on beaches and natural environments also raise economic concerns as nature provides vital resources for tourism-oriented countries like Thailand. The travel and tourism sector contributed nearly 20% of Thailand's GDP in 2019, with 8 million jobs. The Department of Marine and Coastal Resources estimated that nearly 2 million cigarette butts were discarded on just 11 popular Thai beaches in 2017.

The Thai government has banned smoking and littering on the 24 most popular beaches since 2018. The ban should cover the remaining 333 beaches to protect locals, tourists, and natural resources.

Tobacco control can protect not just people, but also Thailand's environment, ecosystem and economy. Thailand can enhance the dual protection by increasing tobacco taxes, supporting tobacco farmers with alternative livelihoods, assisting tobacco users to quit, and requiring the tobacco industry to bear the cleanup costs, among others. These require a whole-of-society, whole-of-government approach, involving multiple sectors such as finance, health, environment, agriculture, education and civil society. Integrating tobacco control as part of environmental protection and climate change adaptation can accelerate the country's progress toward multiple sustainable development goals.

Quitting tobacco saves our planet, saves lives.

Renaud Meyer is Resident Representative, UNDP to Thailand. Dr Jos Vandelaer is the WHO Representative to Thailand. The opinion piece marks World No Tobacco Day which falls each May 31.

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