Tobacco and environment

Tobacco is being cultivated in more than 120 countries, most of which are developing countries. 4.3 million hectares of land is used for tobacco farming, and annually approximately 200 000 hectares of tropical forest is felled to make room for farmland for tobacco.

Deforestation accelerates climate change and leaves soil exposed to winds and rain, gradually creating wasteland. The cultivation of tobacco impoverishes the soil to the extent that, in a couple of years, nothing can be grown in it. It has been estimated that if food crops were cultivated instead of tobacco, more than 19 million people could be fed.

The tobacco is a demanding plant to cultivate: it requires a lot of irrigation, fertilization and insecticides. Pesticides prohibited in industrialized countries are commonly used in poor countries that cultivate tobacco and spread easily into the environment and water systems.

The massive carbon footprint

There are close to 600 tobacco factories in the world, each of which consumes vast amounts of water, energy and chemicals.

The tobacco industry produces more than six trillion cigarettes every year.  According to the World Health Organisation, tobacco production produces annually

  • more than two million tons of solid waste,
  • 300,000 tons of non-recyclable waste containing nicotine and
  • 200,000 tons of other chemical waste.

The carbon dioxide emissions of the tobacco industry are also considerable: in the United States alone, the carbon dioxide emissions of the tobacco industry correspond to those of four million vehicles.

Cigarette butts – the most common trash

4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded into the environment worldwide every year. In Finland, an annual number of approximately four billion butts ends up in the environment.

Cigarette filter tips are made of porous cellulose acetate, which is used to attempt to filter out tar and other toxic ingredients from the tobacco smoke before it reaches the lungs of the smoker. Cellulose acetate is a plastic, which does not decompose and takes years to break down.

The butts contain a lot of toxic chemicals that dissolve into the environment, such as cadmium, arsenic and lead, which are left behind in the butt during smoking. When butts are cast to the ground, wind and rain carry them into water systems, and, the toxic chemicals in the butts dissolve into the waterway’s ecosystem.

An estimated 40 per cent of all trash collected from shores worldwide are in one way or another related to smoking. In Finland, an average of 300 cigarette butts were discovered per hundred meters of city shoreline in a study conducted by the Finnish Environment Institute.

In fresh water, it takes on average 1.5 years for a cigarette butt to break down; in sea water, it takes three years. Butts carried to lakes, rivers or seas often end up being consumed by birds and sea creatures, which can be harmful and even lethal.

Cigarette butts pollute water systems

Tobacco production devastes forests

Less tobacco, less child labour


See also our graphs on tobacco, environment and sustainable development issues on materials.