10.14 The environmental impact of tobacco production

As noted in Section 10.8.1, tobacco growing is shifting from developed countries and becoming concentrated in developing countries. Global tobacco production was forecast to continue increasing until the year 2010, and was expected to be matched by growing demand for tobacco products in the developing world as population and income increase.1

For the farmer, tobacco growing often presents an attractive alternative crop to food, for as well as bringing in a higher income, tobacco growers may also receive practical as well as financial assistance from the tobacco industry2 (although this is not necessarily the case3, 4). At the government level, tobacco growing may also be regarded in a favourable light due to the financial benefits it brings through trade and taxation, at least in the short term.5 From the point of view of the tobacco industry, production costs in the developing world are lower and the market is less regulated,1 making for a more conducive operating environment.

Since the late 1970s, concerns have been registered by a number of environmental agencies regarding the impact of tobacco growing.5 The tobacco crop itself requires a high degree of maintenance, including pest and disease control, a regular water supply and fertilisers to optimise output. Although some tobacco leaf is air or sun-dried, the majority of varieties grown (particularly in the developing world) require curing with generated heat, usually fuelled by wood, coal or gas. Beyond the primary industry, cigarette companies run manufacturing operations to turn leaf into various tobacco products ready for distribution, marketing and sale to end users. The tobacco manufacturing industry generates a number of chemical by-products that are considered hazardous, including ammonia, nicotine and nicotine by-products, hydrochloric acid and toluene. In developed countries, appropriate disposal of these chemicals is strictly regulated; the same may not be true in developing countries where tobacco manufacturing is becoming more concentrated.6

The environmental impact of tobacco production has been taken up by the major tobacco companies as part of their portfolio for corporate social responsibility. The major tobacco companies display their environmental credentials by describing on their websites their adoption of sustainable and low-impact practices from farm to factory.7,8,9,10 But no matter how clean or green tobacco production can be, ameliorating environmental concerns ignores the most obvious environmental impact of tobacco production—the deaths of almost five million people worldwide each year.10

10.14.1 Land clearing and deforestation

In some countries tobacco growing has lead to extensive land clearance and deforestation to make room for new crops, and to provide timber to fuel the heaters used to dry the tobacco leaf following harvest.

Recent, independent information on the status of land maintenance in tobacco farming areas is lacking. The most authoritative review available examines data from 1990–1995.5 This study found that in the early 1990s, 211 000 hectares of forests or woodlands were cleared each year for the purposes of tobacco farming, more than 90% of this occurring in the developing world.5 This was equivalent to 1.7% of global net losses of natural forest each year, or a mean average in tobacco-growing countries of 4.6% of total national deforestation in the five-year period from 1990–1995.5 Overall, around half of the wood consumed for tobacco farming was gathered from common land and native forests, rather than from sustainable sources, and in some countries usage of wood from unmanaged sources was much higher.5 Case reports on farming activity in specific countries attested to the environmental damage caused by farming, and also to the ineffectiveness of measures for reforestation, citing instances of inappropriate plant stock and poorly supported programs.3, 11 Likewise, tobacco industry claims of extensive tree planting from the same time period did not stand up to scrutiny.12

Geist concluded that tobacco's impact on forest resources had reached 'high' or 'serious' levels (above the national mean average of 4.6%) in almost one-third of the 66 developing countries in which tobacco is grown, including South Korea, Uruguay, Bangladesh, Malawi, Jordan, Pakistan, Syria, China, Zimbabwe, Argentina, Tunisia and Burundi. In contrast, the impact of tobacco farming on woodland in developed regions such as Canada and North America, where there was a net increase in forest cover, was low.5 Reports commissioned by the tobacco industry in the 1980s and 1990s also signalled alarm at deforestation due to tobacco growing and curing.5, 12

The International Tobacco Growers' Association,i an affiliation of tobacco growers, claims that preservation of natural resources is a priority and that sustainability is encouraged in most countries where tobacco farmers use wood for fuel. The International Tobacco Growers' Association states that tobacco growers have contributed to the doubling of natural woodland in regions of southern Brazil.13

On their websites, the major international tobacco companies claim adherence to principles of environment protection and sustainability while pointing out that in the main, the companies do not own tobacco farms and do not have direct control over farming practices.ii For example, British American Tobacco encourages farmers to use non-wood fuels and sponsors forestry programs, as well as using packaging materials from suppliers who use sustainable sources.14 Philip Morris International states that it has developed 'Good Agricultural Practices' guidelines, which include avoidance of deforestation and establishment of reforestation.15 Independent verification is not available that the reforestation programs, such as those publicly supported by the tobacco industry, are successful.

10.14.2 Pesticide use

Commercial tobacco growing involves the use of a range of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides to maximise crop production. In recognition of consumer concern about chemicals present in tobacco, as well as the environmental sequelae of inappropriate use of agrichemicals, all three tobacco companies operational in Australia include reassurances about leaf quality on their websites. Imperial Tobacco states that it provides 'training on the safe and correct use of pesticides and fertilisers, and techniques to help farmers reduce the need for them'.iii 16 Philip Morris and British American Tobacco both point to their companies' leaf growing programs that aim to promote quality crops without compromising environmental or human safety.17,7

Until they were banned in the mid-1980s, Australian-grown tobacco was treated with organochlorines such as DDT and dieldrin,18 chemicals that have the ability to accumulate in the environment and the body. In 1981 the National Health and Medical Research Council expressed concern when the Australian Government Analytical Laboratories determined that Australian cigarettes contained 43 times more DDT and 30 times more dieldrin than samples of British or American cigarettes.19 Residues of DDT and dieldrin were still evident in soil and river sediments from the tobacco-producing Ovens and King region in Victoria in 1989,20 and may have been implicated in a higher rate of breast cancer detected between 1982 and 2002 in women living in the area.21

Research has shown that at least one Australian tobacco manufacturer—Philip Morris—was aware as recently as 1994 that the leaf it was using still contained organochlorines from pesticides banned in the preceding decade.18 Australian cigarette manufacturers are not required to divulge the levels of pesticide residues present in their tobacco products. Now that all tobacco leaf in Australian cigarettes is acquired on the international market and much of this leaf is sourced from developing countries, where use of agrichemicals may be less regulated, the question of pesticide residues levels in Australian cigarettes remains open, despite the assurances of the tobacco manufacturers.22 There is evidence from internal industry documents that the tobacco industry internationally has fought hard to retain the rights to use certain pesticides and has sought to influence regulatory processes in some countries.23

10.14.3 Tobacco production and climate change

Climate change (or global warming) is caused by the increased concentration of certain gases trapped within the earth's atmosphere. These gases, which include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and manufactured substances such as chlorofluorocarbons, are heated by and retain warmth from the sun, leading to rises in average temperatures. These 'greenhouse gases' are present in greater quantities due to a range of human activities, including burning fossil fuels, clearing land, some aspects of farming (including using fertilisers), and some industrial processes.24

All phases of tobacco production have the potential to contribute to climate change, from farming to curing the leaf (which for some kinds of tobacco requires the use of heat generated by wood, oil, coal or gas), and the manufacturing process.

The tobacco industry generally acknowledges issues concerning climate change, presenting policy statements and evidence of benchmarking towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. British American Tobacco25, Imperial Tobacco Group26 and Philip Morris International8 all dedicate pages on their international websites to their engagement with responsible environmental policies. All three tobacco companies are among the 3000-plus signatories to the Carbon Disclosure Project,iv responding to regular questionnaires stating their performance in reduction of greenhouse emissions and progress towards targets.

The tobacco industry did not always embrace global environmental concerns. In the early 1990s, lobby groups closely connected with Philip Morris contributed to the public debate about climate change by denouncing the scientific evidence upon which arguments for global warming were based—along with other scientific 'controversies' such as the health impacts of secondhand smoke and radioactive waste from nuclear power reactors.27, 28

10.14.4 Genetically modified tobacco leaf

Public anxiety about genetically modified (GM) crops has lead to ambivalent attitudes towards GM tobacco. According to Imperial Tobacco, 'we do not seek to use genetically modified tobacco, as we do not believe that our consumers wish to purchase products that may contain genetically modified materials'.29 Other companies are investing substantially in GM research.

Over the decades the tobacco industry has put considerable effort into altering the qualities of tobacco leaf through genetic manipulation. From an agricultural viewpoint, GM technology has offered prospects for maximising crop disease resistance and output. Tobacco companies have also experimented with genetic engineering as a way of manipulating nicotine concentrate—both reducing it,30 with the aim of providing a potentially less hazardous product, and increasing it, with the apparent intention of boosting addictiveness.31, 32 The most notorious example of tobacco industry efforts to achieve the latter is the case of British American Tobacco's 'super-tobacco', a genetically engineered plant variant that contained a much higher than usual amount of nicotine and was intended to make the company's products more addictive.33

GM science is now being applied in the pursuit of less harmful forms of tobacco. Philip Morris (USA) has contributed $17.5 million to fund the mapping of the tobacco genome by the North Carolina State University,v and has also funded research into genetically modified tobacco leaf that produces fewer carcinogens when smoked. RJ Reynolds, another US-based firm, has also successfully applied for field permits to test new tobacco strains.34 Vector Tobacco launched QUEST, a brand which used leaf genetically engineered with reduced nicotine.35,36 The manufacture and sale of QUEST brand cigarettes was discontinued in 2009.37

i See: http://www.tobaccoleaf.org/default.asp . The International Tobacco Growers' Association is also discussed in Section 10.18.5.

ii This may be somewhat disingenuous. For example, there is evidence that the tobacco companies may exert influence over farmers via the leaf dealers See: Otanez MG, Muggli ME, Hurt RD, Glantz SA. Eliminating child labour in Malawi: a British American Tobacco corporate responsibility project to sidestep tobacco labour exploitation. Tobacco Control 2006;15(3):224–30.

iii Imperial Tobacco does not manufacture cigarettes in Australia, but does import here. British American Tobacco Australia manufactures tobacco products for Imperial Tobacco Australia under licence. However Imperial Tobacco Australia does import a range of tobacco products. See Section 10.4.3.

iv The Carbon Disclosure Project is an independent, international, non-profit institution that encourages publicly listed corporations to measure, manage and reduce emissions. The Carbon Disclosure Project website is the largest repository of corporate greenhouse gas emissions data in the world. See: http://www.cdproject.net/

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