tl;dr Buying tobacco = supporting an industry that traps farmers in a vicious cycle of debt and has a massive impact on climate change.
Before your tobacco has been packed into pouches or rolled up in cigarette paper and distributed around the world, it has already racked up a huge environmental toll. In fact, tobacco’s total environmental footprint is comparable to that of entire countries 🇵🇪 🇮🇱 🏴
The farming, curing (drying) and manufacturing stages are especially harmful, greatly depleting the world’s natural resources.
“Smokers in the developed world are literally and metaphorically burning the resources of poorer countries.”
Dr Nicholas Hopkinson, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London
Low income countries are particularly attractive locations for tobacco farming because safety and environmental regulations are easier to work around. It’s common for small-scale farmers to enter into contract farming, producing tobacco that will be sold by a third-party to transnational tobacco companies.
Your hard-earned cash → Big Tobacco → climate change
Deforestation is one of the biggest contributors to CO2 emissions and climate change.
Hectares and hectares of woodland, billions of trees, are cleared to make way for tobacco plots, or to obtain wood to build barns and fuel huge furnaces for curing tobacco leaves. In Zimbabwe, the largest tobacco-producing country in Africa, tobacco farming destroys 60,000 hectares of woodlands a year.
Growing tobacco is up to ten times more aggressive in causing deforestation than other crops. Heavy use of agro pesticides and burning leftover crops to prevent pests and diseases damages the soil.
Farmers in low-income countries who lack the skills or resources to salvage their land are forced to clear more space for new crops each season. This precious land is going to waste on a deadly product in countries where food is already scarce, and children die from malnutrition.
There’s something in the water…
Watering tobacco plants is a huge contributor to water depletion. Waterways and aquatic life are also at risk of pollution and poisoning due to the heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides.
The farmers themselves are at risk of poisoning from these chemicals too. Many are unable or unaware of how to protect themselves and are at risk of physiological and psychological side-effects from exposure.
Simply touching the tobacco leaves can cause illness, with workers absorbing up to 50 cigarettes worth of nicotine in a single day. Child labour is still common in this industry, and children are not only missing school due to working in the fields, but also due to illness from exposure to tobacco leaves.
Crops like potatoes and tomatoes require less water, chemicals, are less labour-intensive and are not associated with human death and disease. Even better, food crops can be more profitable for farmers and can reduce food insecurity.
When the tobacco is finally harvested and cured, it’s time to sell it back to the buyer. The buyer will often use their own grading system to tell the farmer what the quality of the tobacco is and how much the buyer will pay for it. In this way, big companies can keep their costs as low as possible and maximise their own profits.
"You have to work hard on the tobacco farms, and you do not know how much you are going to gain because the prices are set by the tobacco companies. This is done on purpose so they can gain more! They also set up so many grades on the crop that it makes it impossible for you as the grower to estimate the yields,"
Reginald Omulo, Kenya
Farmers are provided with upfront money and resources to begin their crop in the first place (equipment, fertilizer, seeds, chemicals) which are then deducted from any profit they may have earned. These and other contract conditions might not be obvious or easy to understand and it is not uncommon for farmers to go into debt and be forced to take on another season of growing tobacco to pay it back.
“Six months of our hard labour in the tobacco fields, our fate is being negotiated by someone else in the auction floors …The six bales lined-up for sale in the auction floors can amount to less than $50, after all the deductions. What we are earning is not sustainable to improve our lives.”
Jairos Mufudzi, Zimbabwe
There’s a claim in front of courts right now by poverty-stricken farmers in Malawi against Big Tobacco companies for these exploitative practices. This vicious cycle makes it difficult for them to switch to food or other crops that would be better for their health and their livelihoods.
Going green? Ditch nicotine
If you’ve already started changing your habits to become greener (canvas shopping bags ✓, composting✓, reusable coffee cups ✓), quitting tobacco could be the next big thing you do to support the environment.
You can go green in the knowledge that the only people benefiting from this product are the corporate executives still peddling its worth. Everyone else, plants and animals included, will be much better off without it.