10.15 The environmental impact of tobacco production

Last  updated: September 2021 

Suggested citation: MacKenzie, R., Freeman, B., & Winstanley, MH. 10.15 The environmental impact of tobacco production. In Greenhalgh, EM, Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2021. Available from :  http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-10-tobacco-industry/10-14-the-environmental-impact-of-tobacco-producti

 

In 2019, 6.7 million tonnes of tobacco leaf were grown in more than 120 countries.1 Almost two-thirds (63.7 %) of this was produced by three countries—China (40.2%), India (12.0%) and Brazil (11.5%).2  As with smoking prevalence, tobacco production has shifted from high-income countries—primarily in North America and Europe—to low and middle-income countries.  Between 1961 and 2019, the percentage of global production of tobacco leaf in Asia and Africa doubled, from 44.3% in 1961 to 88.4% in 2019;3  nine of the ten leading tobacco producers are developing countries, and four—India, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Malawi—are low-income food-deficit countries.4  

For many farmers, particularly in low and middle-income countries, tobacco is considered an important source of income.5, 6 A number of observers7-10 however, have described how industry control of tobacco growing and the leaf trade has resulted in cycles of indebtedness, particularly among farmers contracted directly by leading cigarette manufacturers.11, 12 An analysis of the situation in Zimbabwe, for example, described tobacco farmers as “largely victims, rather than beneficiaries, of the sector.”13 In many cases, short-term, unreliable income is offset by costs of fertilisers and pesticides, the risks associated with dangerous working conditions and illness experienced by farm workers, and the long-term negative consequences of child labour7, 14-17 (see Section 10.14).

While governments of tobacco growing countries benefit from rural employment and income from taxation, a range of tensions exist ‘between economic reliance on tobacco production and the negative impacts of such reliance on the economies of low and middle-income countries.’18, 19 These include the costs of treatment of farmers and families exposed to nicotine and chemical components of fertilisers, and pesticides, food insecurity, and environmental degradation.19, 20  

Further, the ostensible benefits of tobacco cultivation have been used by tobacco companies to influence domestic tobacco control policy, creating a favourable operating environment that features less regulation and lower production costs. The situation in Malawi, for example, has been described as an example of ‘state capture’; a situation in which firms operating in a country have significant capacity to shape and influence regulation and laws.21-23 In the twentieth-first century, the China National Tobacco Corporation has played an increasingly prominent role in the African tobacco growing sector,24  joining the traditional corporate actors Philip Morris International (PMI), British American Tobacco (BAT), Imperial Brands and Japan Tobacco International and maintaining the ‘hierarchal governance of an exploitive and harmful industry.’25

Since the late 1970s, concerns have been raised regarding the environmental impacts of tobacco growing.4, 7, 26-28 Tobacco leaf cultivation is labour-intensive, requires significant use of pesticides  and fertilisers, and extensive water supply.4  While some tobacco leaf is air or sun-dried, the majority of cultivated leaf, particularly in low and middle-income countries is flue-cured in barns using heat produced by burning wood, coal or gas. Manufacturing cigarettes from tobacco crops generates a further range of hazardous chemical by-products, including ammonia, nicotine hydrochloric acid and toluene. In high-income countries, appropriate disposal of these chemicals is strictly regulated; the same may not be true in developing countries where tobacco manufacturing is increasingly concentrated.26

10.15.1 Land clearing and deforestation

Tobacco cultivation and curing is a ‘proximate cause’ of deforestation due to associated land clearance, use of timber for wood fuel, and soil nutrient depletion.29 International concerns were first raised at the 1979 World Conference on Smoking and Health in Stockholm; subsequent research included a 199930 study which reported that flue-cured tobacco consumed the equivalent of 1.2–2.5 million hectares of open forests or woodlands annually for curing. The study 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 sixty-six low or middle income countries in which tobacco is grown, including Uruguay, Bangladesh, Malawi, Jordan, Pakistan, Syria, China, Zimbabwe, Tunisia and Burundi. In contrast, the impact of tobacco farming on woodland in high-income regions such as North America was low, and a net increase in forest cover had been recorded.30

Subsequent findings suggest that 4% of annual global deforestation in the 2000s has been attributable to tobacco growing. The problem is particularly acute in low- and middle-income countries, and accounted for 18% of deforestation in China, 20% in Zimbabwe, 26% in Malawi, and close to 30% in Bangladesh.29

Industry response

The industry has downplayed the contribution of tobacco cultivation to deforestation, and claims careful management of sustainable leaf production. BAT for instance, states ‘[w]e do not own tobacco farms or directly employ farmers—but our approach to agriculture and working with farmers means that we have strong influence.’31

But growing concerns around the environmental impacts of leaf growing have led leading tobacco companies to issue reports and publicise programs that address these issues, generally as part of broader corporate social responsibility (CSR) agendas.24, 32-35 Analysis of industry initiatives, however, has demonstrated that they are primarily designed to deflect attention from environmental impacts of tobacco cultivation, and to influence public and policy-maker attitudes toward tobacco companies15, 24, 28, 36-39 (see Section 10.11).       

External verification of outcomes of these programs has not been made available, and an urgent need exists for independent monitoring of the scale of tobacco-related deforestation, effectiveness of response to the problem, and the tobacco industry strategies to influence public policy on the environment. Industry strategies to shape understanding of deforestation have focused on claims of economic benefits and responsible behaviour by industry toward consumers and communities, and have been promoted at national and international levels through use of front groups and paid consultants.29

The International Tobacco Growers’ Association (ITGA), which has been described as a tobacco industry front group,40  has taken a more robust approach. Created in 1984, it actively promotes industry agriculture initiatives and states that ‘sustainability of our farmers and their communities have been key in the core objectives of our association.’41 The association’s website also dismisses as ‘myths’ the mounting evidence that tobacco growing: has deleterious health impacts for farmers; increases poverty for tobacco farming families; and exacerbates food insecurity. It also denies that child labour is a particular problem and questions the existence of economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco farming.42

10.15.2 Pesticides

Commercial tobacco growing involves herbicides, fungicides and insecticides to maximise crop production. Consumer concerns about chemicals in tobacco production has prompted some global tobacco companies to provide broad plans regarding sustainable cultivation, but little in the way of detail on use of pesticides and fertilisers.43-45 BAT for instance, states that by 2020, ‘around 50% of our contracted farmers’ footprint had been successfully converted to natural bio-pesticides” and that the company was “aiming to increase this to 80% by 2023.’45

Despite such assurances, evidence retrieved from previously confidential internal tobacco industry documents indicates that the industry has fought to retain the rights to use certain pesticides and has sought to influence regulatory processes in some countries.46  Studies that have found that pesticides prohibited in Europe are still used in Cuba,47 and on use of pesticides in Kenya48 and Pakistan49 raise further concerns.   

Commercial tobacco growing ended in Australia in 2006.50 Prior to their ban in the mid-1980s, organochlorines such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and dieldrin were used in domestic tobacco cultivation;51 testing in 1981 found that Australian cigarettes contained 43 times more DDT and 30 times more dieldrin than samples of British or American-manufactured cigarettes.52 DDT and dieldrin residue was still evident in soil and river sediments from the tobacco-producing Ovens and King region in Victoria in 1989,53 and Philip Morris Australia was aware in 1994 that leaf it used still contained organochlorines from pesticides banned in the preceding decade.51 Cigarette manufacturers operating in Australia are not required to divulge levels of pesticide residue in their products,51, 54 and leaf used in cigarettes sold domestically is primarily sourced from low and middle-income countries, where use of agrichemicals is more common and less strictly regulated.7, 55

10.15.3 Genetically modified tobacco leaf 

Public concern about genetically modified (GM) agriculture has led tobacco companies to take a cautious approach to its use, or at least to publicising any involvement in related research. PMI states that in line with its Good Agricultural Practices principles, genetically modified (GM) tobacco is not acceptable to PMI: ‘We have solid programs in place to avoid any inadvertent introduction of GM tobacco into the products we commercialize’.56 Imperial Brands website notes that the company doesn’t ‘seek to use genetically modified tobacco, as we don’t believe our consumers wish to buy products that contain genetically modified materials’;57 while BAT asks ‘suppliers to submit a GM risk assessment and GM testing to monitor compliance to our standard for no usage of any GM organisms in tobacco crops.’45 The tobacco industry, however, has put considerable effort into altering the qualities of tobacco leaf and to improve disease resistance through genetic manipulation since the 1980s58 and in 1990, China became the first country to commercialise GM tobacco for virus resistance.59

Tobacco companies have also used genetic engineering to reduce nicotine content60, 61 as part of broader strategies to produce potentially less harmful cigarettes. Related efforts include mapping of the tobacco genome, and funding research into genetically modified tobacco leaf that produces fewer carcinogens.62, 63 Research has also been undertaken into raising nicotine levels, with the intention of increasing addictiveness;58, 64-66 the best-known example may be BAT’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.67

10.15.4 Tobacco production and climate change  

Climate change, the large-scale, long-term shift in the planet's weather patterns or average temperatures, is the result of increased greenhouse gas emissions, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, among others. These emissions have been increasing since the pre- industrial era, and are caused primarily by economic activity, and population growth.68 All phases of cigarette production, from leaf cultivation through cigarette manufacture to transportation, contribute to greenhouse gas emission.58 Assessments of production frequently use CO2-equivalent (CO2e) emissions, a metric measure that is used to compare greenhouse gas emissions on the basis of their global-warming potential; this is done by converting quantities of other gases to the corresponding amount of carbon dioxide with the same global warming potential.69

Most of the release of CO2e emissions occur during the agricultural production of tobacco leaf, however manufacturing pollution, distribution, and transport pollution contribute an estimated one-third of tobacco’s environmental impact due to CO2e pollution.70

A 2018 analysis using life cycle assessment reported that 32.4 megatonnes (Mt) [1 Mt = 1 million tonnes] of tobacco leaf was used to produce 6.48 Mt of dry tobacco that was used in the global manufacture of six trillion cigarettes in 2014. This process contributed some 84 Mt CO2e emissions to climate change, or 0.2% of the global total, as well as contributing to ecotoxicology levels, and water and fossil fuel depletion.4

Industry reporting

The tobacco industry has contributed to efforts to raise doubt around anthropogenic climate change among the public and policy-makers,26, 70-72 while publicly highlighting its commitment to a range of carbon reduction schemes. As with other environmental claims, deforestation and use of pesticides for example, industry promotion of carbon reduction targets and use of renewable energy sources are listed on corporate websites, but provide limited transparent detail or analysis.45, 73-75 Problems with voluntary reporting include shifting baselines supplied by companies that make accurate estimates difficult to calculate, and the reality that companies failing to meet their own targets may simply stop reporting them.70  Another tobacco industry tactic is to compare its environmental footprint with other industries. But pointing to lesser water consumption than the coffee or chocolate industries, as Philip Morris has done, is severely restricted in terms of ostensible benefits by the mortality and morbidity impacts of tobacco consumption.70

Given the industry’s record of using voluntary reporting to avoid regulation, and for ‘moving   from countries to avoid facing the consequences of their activities, including environmental harms’,70 it is worth noting that  BAT states that it will ‘meet all legal and regulatory requirements governing environmental management in the countries where we operate’.76 The company’s ESG Report 2020 lists operations in 180 markets, 45 cigarette factories, and purchase of 370,000 tonnes of tobacco leaf purchased from 84,000 contracted farmers.45 Meeting local standards allows the company considerable latitude in terms of climate change policy and represents a less robust commitment than establishing a company-wide best practice standard.

All four leading global tobacco companies highlight their participation in CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) emissions database.  A UK-based not-for-profit organisation founded in 2000 by 35 institutional investors, CDP aims to transmit investor concerns about sustainability to companies, cities, states and other potential investment targets, while providing information to investors on climate change-associated performance.77 More than 5600 companies and 533 cities voluntarily provide relevant data to CPD.78

Despite its impressive database, analysis of the CDP has raised a number of questions about its effectiveness, particularly as corporations decide which, and how much, information they supply.79  PMI’s claim that  ‘CDP ratings provide companies with a credible, trusted benchmarking system for environmental information at the global level’80 is, for instance, disputed by Bowen who argues that the CDP  promotes climate change initiatives and credentials provided by firms ‘whether or not they affect their substantive environmental impacts’.81 Further, there are ‘no costs or carbon commitments’82 for the more than 800 signatory investors (representing some US$100 trillion in assets).78  

The range of industry voluntary reporting and corporate social responsibility sustainability initiatives remains unreliable in terms of accurately determining the environment footprint of its operations and stated efforts to become more sustainable.  A more meaningful process would involve transparent and independent assessment of the tobacco industry’s environmental impact across its operations and markets.

 

Relevant news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click  here. ( Last updated June 2022)

 

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