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Tobacco is bad for the environment


Text by Henrylito D. Tacio

Photo by Rhoy Cobilla

It is common knowledge that smoking tobacco is hazardous to your health. But what most Filipinos don’t know is that tobacco, even when not puffed, is bad for the environment. This was what the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out during the recent World No Tobacco Day celebration.

Growing tobacco is destroying the environment, says the United Nations health agency. “Tobacco farming leads to depletion of water sources, large-scale deforestation, soil erosion and contamination of the air and water systems,” it says. “And it means there’s less land to grow crops to feed people.”

The majority of tobacco is grown in low- and middle-income countries, where water and farmland are often desperately needed to produce food for the region, the WHO says. “Instead, they are being used to grown deadly tobacco plants, while more and more land is being cleared of forests.”

About 600 million trees are chopped down to make 6 trillion cigarettes, the WHO says, adding that 200,000 hectares of land are used to grow tobacco.

According to WHO, clearing forests for tobacco plantations promotes soil degradation in the form of erosion. 

“Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation – far worse than any outside enemy coming into a country conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly,” said Harold Ray Watson, former director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center. “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land.”

Soil erosion, Watson said, makes farmlands infertile every year. Studies show that loss of a few centimeters of topsoil can reduce the productivity of good soils by 40% and poor soils by 60%.

Experts call these “failing yields” or the capacity for the land to support the growth of any other crops or vegetation. “Once (the topsoil) is eroded, it is gone forever,” said the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Every year, over 22 trillion liters of water are used to grow tobacco, the WHO says. That huge volume of water is enough to fill about 8.8 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Water is very much needed to grow crops. “The link between water and food is strong,” said Lester R. Brown, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Earth Policy Institute. “We drink, in one form of another, nearly 4 liters of water per day. But the food we consume each day requires at least 2,000 liters to produce 500 times as much.”

Agriculture is by far the biggest consumer of water. According to International Rice Research Institute, a farmer needs a thousand gallons of water just to raise a ton of rice, the staple food of Filipinos.

“The environmental impacts of tobacco use add unnecessary pressure to our planet’s already scarce resources and fragile ecosystems,” says Dr. Ruediger Krech, WHO director of health promotion. “This is especially dangerous for developing countries, as that’s where most of the tobacco production happens.

“Every cigarette you smoke, you are literally burning resources where they are already scarce, burning resources where our very existence depends upon,” he adds.

What remains after smoking is the cigarette filters – also known as butts or ends. They may be small and tend to go unnoticed, but they are hiding almost everywhere. Contrary to what most people believe, cigarette butts are not harmless.

“Cigarette filters are made of a plastic called cellulose acetate,” explained National Geographic’s Tik Root. “When tossed into the environment, they dump not only that plastic, but also the nicotine, heavy metals, and many other chemicals they’ve absorbed into the surrounding environment.”

That’s what makes cigarette butts harmful “Tobacco products are the most littered item on the planet, containing over 7,000 toxic chemicals, which leech into our environment when discarded,” observes Dr. Krech. “Roughly 4.5 trillion cigarette filters pollute our oceans, rivers, city sidewalks, parks, soil, and beaches ever year.”

But what is even alarming is that tobacco emits 84 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. The WHO report, Tobacco: Poisoning our planet, highlights that the industry’s carbon footprint from production, processing, and transporting tobacco is equivalent to one-fifth of the carbon dioxide produced by the commercial airline industry each year, further contributing to global warming.

History records showed that tobacco was introduced in the Philippines in the late 16th century during the era of the Spanish colonization when the Augustinians brought cigar tobacco seeds to the colony for cultivation. When William Dampier visited Mindanao in 1686, he observed that smoking was already a widespread custom.

Today, tobacco is grown in 23 provinces in the Philippines, covering approximately 30,352 hectares, according to the National Tobacco Administration (NTA). The industry covers four types of locally-grown tobacco: Virginia, Burley, native tobacco, and Turkish tobacco (referred to as aromatic tobacco).

Virginia tobacco is grown mainly in Region I, particularly Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Abra, and La Union. Burley tobacco is also grown in Region I, specifically Pangasinan, La Union and Abra; Isabela ad Cagayan in Region II; Tarlac in Region III and Occidental Mindoro in Region IV.

The native tobacco is grown in Pangasinan and La Union in Region 1; Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Ecija and Quirino in Region II; the Visayan provinces of Capiz, Iloilo, Cebu, Negros Oriental and Leyte; and in the Mindanao provinces of Zamboanga del Sur, Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental, North Cotabato and Maguindanao.

Only a few farmers plant the Turkish tobaccos. These are usually exported to Japan, Spain, France, Tunisia, Dominican Republic, and Belgium, among others. 

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