10.15 The environmental impact of tobacco production

Last updated: December 2016 

Suggested citation: MacKenzie, R., Freeman, B., & Winstanley, MH. 10.14 The environmental impact of tobacco production. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2016. Available from: http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-10-tobacco-industry/10-15-the-environmental-impact-of-tobacco-producti


In 2012, 7.5 million tonnes of tobacco leaf were grown in more than 120 countries.1 Two-thirds (64.8%) of this production was produced by three countries, China (42.3%), Brazil (11.4%), and India (11.1%).2 Like smoking prevalence, tobacco production has shifted from high-income to low and middle-income countries. Between and 1961 and 2006, global production of tobacco leaf rose from 57% to 90% in low and middle-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia.3   

For many farmers, particularly, but not exclusively, in low and middle-income countries, tobacco is considered an important source of income. A number of observers,4-6 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. Further, short-term, unreliable income is often offset by damage caused by tobacco cultivation to the local environment, costs of fertilisers and pesticides, dangerous working conditions and illness experienced by farm workers, food insecurity and child labour4, 7-10 (see Section 10.15). For governments, tobacco growing provides income through trade and taxation, at least in the short term.11 From the tobacco industry’s perspective, production costs in low and middle-income countries are lower, and markets are often less regulated.12, 13

Since the late 1970s, concerns have been raised regarding the environmental impacts of tobacco growing.4, 14, 15 Tobacco leaf cultivation is labour-intensive, requires significant pest and disease control, use of fertilisers, and extensive water supply.  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.14, 16

In response to growing concerns around the environmental impacts of leaf growing, leading tobacco companies have taken steps to address these issues, generally as part of broader corporate social responsibility (CSR) agendas.17-20 Analysis of industry initiatives, however, demonstrates that they have been aimed at deflecting attention from environmental impacts of tobacco cultivation issues, and at influencing public and policy-maker attitudes toward tobacco companies.21-23          

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.24 International concerns were first raised at the 1979 World Conference on Smoking and Health in Stockholm. Subsequent research included a 199911 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. It 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 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.11 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.24   

Tobacco industry response has been to downplay the impact of tobacco cultivation on deforestation, and to claim careful management of sustainable leaf production. The International Tobacco Growers’ Association, which describes itself as “a non-profit organisation founded in 1984 with the objective of presenting the cause of millions of tobacco farmers to the world”25 but is, in fact, a tobacco industry front group, has produced a range of publications promoting industry sustainable agriculture initiatives. Tobacco companies19, 26-28 claim similar adherence to principles of environmental protection, but argue that as they do not own tobacco farms, their oversight of cultivation processes is limited.  British American Tobacco (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”.18

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.24

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 global companies to provide broad assurances regarding sustainable cultivation, but little in the way of detail on use of pesticides and fertilisers.19, 29, 30 British American Tobacco states that its “integrated pest management approach seeks to protect crops by drawing on all available methods to achieve a significant reduction in the use of chemicals” adding that that their “growing programmes lead the industry in reducing the use of agrochemicals”.30 Despite such assurances, evidence retrieved from previously confidential internal tobacco industry documents indicates that that the industry has fought to retain the rights to use certain pesticides and has sought to influence regulatory processes in some countries.31   

Commercial tobacco growing ended in Australia in 2006.32 Prior to their ban in the mid-1980s, organochlorines such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and dieldrin were used in domestic tobacco cultivation;33 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.34 DDT and dieldrin residue was still evident in soil and river sediments from the tobacco-producing Ovens and King region in Victoria in 1989,35 and Philip Morris Australia was aware in 1994 that leaf it used still contained organochlorines from pesticides banned in the preceding decade.33 Cigarette manufacturers operating in Australia are not required to divulge levels of pesticide residue in their products,36 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.4, 37   

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. Philip Morris International states that it will buy “only conventional varieties of tobacco and avoid genetically modified tobacco”,38 while British American Tobacco “takes all reasonable precautions” to avoid purchase of genetically modified leaf in response to consumer concerns.39  

Historically, the tobacco industry has put considerable effort into altering the qualities of tobacco leaf through genetic manipulation. GM technology offers the potential to maximise crop output disease resistance, but tobacco companies have also looked to use genetic engineering to manipulate nicotine concentration. Reducing nicotine40 is part of broader efforts to produce a potentially less harmful cigarettes that include mapping of the tobacco genome, and has funding research into genetically modified tobacco leaf that produces fewer carcinogens.41 Research has also been undertaken into the possibility of raising nicotine levels, with the intention of increasing addictiveness;42-44 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.45   

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.46 All phases of cigarette production, from leaf cultivation through cigarette manufacture to transportation, contribute to greenhouse gas emission.44 There is an urgent need for comprehensive estimates of carbon produced through the tobacco life-cycle. 

In 2006, British American Tobacco estimated that production of one million cigarettes generated 0.79 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which would mean that roughly 4,740,000 tonnes would be produced annually by global cigarette manufacturing.47 Other analyses suggest that this figure significantly underestimates emission levels. In 2002, modelling by Carnegie Mellon University’s Green Design Institute estimated that the United States tobacco industry, alone, produced around 16 million tonnes of carbon, the annual emission equivalent of 4.4 million cars.44      

While the tobacco industry has supported efforts designed to raise doubt around climate change among the public and policy-makers,47-49 it publicly highlights its commitment to a range of carbon reduction schemes. As with other environmental claims, deforestation and use of pesticides for example, industry promotion of its carbon reduction targets and use of renewable energy sources are listed on corporate websites, but provide little detail or analysis.19, 50, 51 Importantly, British American Tobacco states that it will meet legal and regulatory obligations related to environmental management “in the countries in which we operate”.52 The company sells its brands in 200 markets, manufactures cigarettes in 41 countries, and buys some 400,000 tonnes of tobacco from 90,000 farmers and third party suppliers, mainly in developing countries and emerging economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America.18 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.53 More than 5600 companies and 533 cities voluntarily provide relevant data to CPD.54 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.55 Philip Morris International’s claim that  “CDP ratings provide companies with a credible, trusted benchmarking system for environmental information at the global level”51 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”.56 Further, there are “no costs or carbon commitments”57 for the more than 800 signatory investors (representing some US$100 trillion in assets).54    

Relevant news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click here.(Last updated January 2019)


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