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Tobacco – the silent environment killer!

Published : 27 May 2022 09:28 PM | Updated : 14 Jun 2022 04:41 PM

Everyone knows that tobacco is harmful to health and the adverse impact of smoking and consumption of other tobacco products is well recognised and documented, the environmental and ecological impact of tobacco industry is often overlooked.

Alongside public health, tobacco also affects the environment, ecology and biodiversity.  According to researchers on tobacco control and environment, a tobacco product damages the environment at every stage of its lifecycle.  

Fahmida Islam, STOP Bangladesh Focal Point; said that tobacco has also a huge impact on the environmental pollution. The tobacco industry brings adverse impact on water, air, forest, soil and agricultural land.  

Talking to the Bangladesh Post on Friday (May 27), Fahmida Islam said that tobacco industry carries out so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities to divert attention from tobacco’s harmful impact. She called for exposing the industry’s misdeeds and environmental damages. She however, emphasized further research on tobacco’s adverse impact on the environment. 

According to information provided by the STOP, a tobacco industry watchdog; tobacco production, including cultivation and curing, accounts for five per cent of global deforestation. Clearing lands and burning plant residues lead to deforestation, while use of agrochemicals and pesticides pollute waterways and poison fishes. Burning firewood to cure tobacco leaves also causes deforestation. 

According to a research article carried out on environmental impacts of tobacco cultivation in Bangladesh, thousands of mounds of woods are being used each year in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) to bake tobacco leaves in tobacco furnaces. It contributes to deforestation.

Bebek Kanti Das, a researcher who is working at Center For Environment and Disaster Studies (CEDS); Nusrat Jahan Koley, a teacher of Geography and Environment dept of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST); and Sardar Arif Uddin are the authors of the article titled ‘Environmental Impacts of Tobacco Cultivation in Bangladesh: A Review of the Literature’.

Manufacturing processes of tobacco products involve use of toxic chemicals, emission of greenhouse gases and other waste. Greenhouse gas is also emitted during the transport of tobacco products. 

Cigarette is a leading item of tobacco. Toxic residue from cigarette smoking lingers in the environment is very harmful for the ecology and environment. Alongside a cause for the fire incident, the third-hand smoke material pollutes the environment and biodiversity. 

The cigarette butt is considered as one of the most littered items, while tobacco product packaging yields two million tons of solid waste annually in Bangladesh. 

The cigarette butt contributes a lot to marine pollution. According to the STOP-provided information, over one-third of cigarette butt litter winds up in the ocean and 19 to 38 per cent of total debris in ocean clean-ups are cigarette butts. Marine pollution also occurs due to the plastic content of tobacco packaging.

Muhammad Anowarul Hoque, secretary general at Save Our Sea, said that along with other waste, tobacco product, including tobacco packets and cigarette butt, is also found in the sea. The tobacco waste as well as the cigarette butt carries harmful elements. As a result, the fish eats these and is damaged, while that fish also harms people.

Talking to the Bangladesh Post, Muhammad Anowarul Hoque said that the harmful effects of tobacco and cigarette on environmental pollution are still not noticed properly. He emphasizes research on the effects of tobacco in preventing environmental pollution. He, however, said that the environmental pollution and marine pollution would decrease if the presence of tobacco products and cigarette butts decreases.  

Syed Mahbubul Alam Tahin, technical adviser at The Union; said that each stage of a tobacco product lifecycle damages our environment. Tobacco cultivation affects land fertility and food security. The tobacco companies must also take the responsibility for environmental pollution. Strict measures require stopping tobacco sponsorships, while increasing tobacco tax can be a means to hold the tobacco industry accountable for the environmental harms, he added. 

It is known that tobacco is grown on over one lakh hectares of land in Bangladesh. More urea fertilizer and insecticides than growing paddy and other crops are used for growing tobacco. As a result, the land on which tobacco is grown fast loses fertility and becomes unfit for growing other crops.

According to Farida Akhtar of UBINIG, the tobacco farming in the country has always been river-based to exploit the fertile soil. Because the fertile soil is an important factor for quality tobacco leaf production. 

British American Tobacco Company began tobacco farming in Rangpur in the fertile Teesta silt in the early 1970s, later on moved to Kushtia for the Gangetic Floodplain and then to the CHTs mostly for the fertile riverbed of Matamuhuri and the trees in the hill forest. In essence, the expansion of tobacco production is a corporate grabbing of fertile land, forests for fuel woods and water, for which investors had to pay nothing.

The soil becomes hard, dries up quickly or does not drain easily due to tobacco cultivation. The natural smell of the soil disappears and the soil color changes for the cultivation. So, tobacco cultivation causes the loss of soil organic matter, changes in soil chemical properties and loss of water-holding capacity.