The Dirt Behind Big Tobacco and the Environment

The next time you go for a walk, look at the ground. How many littered cigarette butts do you see? Chances are, more than a few. Cigarette butts are the most littered item on the planet—4.5 trillion are discarded every year. While cigarette waste may be the most visible form of environmental degradation the tobacco industry contributes to, it’s only one way the industry creates lasting damage to the environment and subsequently, the people who live in it (that’s all of us—smokers and nonsmokers alike).

The harmful impact the Big Four—British American Tobacco (BAT), Imperial Brands (IB), Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and Philip Morris International (PMI)—have on the planet doesn’t get the urgent attention it deserves. A big reason for that is so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. These include activities like donations to environmental organizations or partnerships with governments to address local sustainability concerns.

While CSR sounds like a positive thing, one of the main reasons the tobacco industry engages in this so-called philanthropic behavior is to distract from the overwhelming harm tobacco companies cause. Perhaps one of the reasons we see tobacco companies carrying out so much sustainability-focused CSR is because there’s a lot they don’t want the public to notice.

The tobacco industry’s harm to the planet, in numbers

The environmental damage caused by the tobacco industry starts long before a used product is tossed to the ground. Tobacco growing causes soil erosion and contributes heavily to deforestation.

According to a 2021 Truth Initiative report, approximately 600 million trees are cut down every year (each tree produces enough paper for only about 15 packs of cigarettes) and massive amounts of toxic chemicals are released into the environment. In 2018, close to 950,000 pounds of toxic chemicals were released from tobacco facilities in the U.S. alone.

Then there’s the energy used. In 2017, JTI reported to have used more than 2,600 Gigawatts hours (GWH) of energy. In 2018, PMI reported annual energy use of about 2,500 GWH and BAT reported the same in 2020. To help explain just how much energy that is, the World Health Organization compares this energy expenditure to the “equivalent to building around 2 million automobiles.”

There’s the air pollution caused by lighting and smoking tobacco companies’ products, and finally there’s the post-consumer waste. Many of those 4.5 trillion cigarette butts that are discarded every year end up in rivers, lakes and oceans; they’re the most common item found in beach clean-ups. The damage these discarded butts causes is long-lasting: The filters, which contain a type of plastic, leach toxic chemicals into the water and can remain in the water source for up to a decade. It’s easy to assume that exposure to toxic chemicals would harm the wildlife living in these water sources, but the specifics are disturbing. The same Truth Initiative report states that, “…the chemicals that leached from a single cigarette butt (soaked for 24 hours in a litre of water) released enough toxins to kill 50 percent of the saltwater and freshwater fish exposed to it for 96 hours.”

While the overwhelming problem of cigarette litter persists, the new tobacco and nicotine products on the market are creating another worrying environmental crisis. In addition to cigarette butts, we may soon find beaches covered in the plastic found in e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products. Nick Mallos of the Trash-Free Seas program at Ocean Conservancy told ABC News, “…we unfortunately expect to see more and more of these products on the beaches, unless some intervention is made.”

The so-called CSR the tobacco industry uses to distract the public and policymakers

The major tobacco companies have deep wallets, and often make a public display of dipping into them to fund various sustainability-focused initiatives. Between 2014 and 2019, PMI spent more than US $12 million funding environmental projects and CSR activities around the world (a paltry amount compared to the company’s US $180 billion profits over the same time period). Notably, some of this funding went towards “raising awareness” around littering; yet the company continues to make and sell billions of cigarettes per year, many of which will end up as litter.

JTI also funneled more than US $2 million over the last five years to CSR programs through its JTI Foundation. Per the Foundation’s list of projects, many sustainability-related initiatives focus on areas like disaster relief and flood risk management—environment-related projects that aren’t necessarily directly impacted by the tobacco industry. This is likely one way the industry can associate itself with sustainability initiatives, without drawing attention to the areas on which it has a massive, negative effect.

In addition to direct donations, some tobacco companies partner with governments to back local sustainability projects, and reap big public relations benefits in the process. In March 2021, Imperial Tobacco Madagascar entered into a three-year partnership with the country’s government to help build five botanical parks. A major benefit to Imperial Brands, the company gained favorable attention for the partnership at a ceremony attended by ministers, governors and representatives of the president.

The urgent need for advocates in all areas to take action

The tobacco industry should be more concerned by the massive death toll its products cause every year and, in turn, cease making, marketing and selling its addictive products. Sadly, even though its customers may perish, the products that killed them live on and continue to damage people and the planet. Attempting to alleviate this continued harm with highly publicized CSR is among the industry’s most destructive acts of duplicity.

Environmental advocates should place the tobacco industry at the top of its most-wanted list. If multiple sectors band together to reveal the true environmental harms the industry perpetuates and pressure policymakers for change, better regulations can be put in place, including those that ban tobacco industry CSR or the promotion of such activities. The health of the planet—and of people—can only improve from there.