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Cigarette Smoking: An Assessment of Tobacco’s Global Environmental Footprint Across Its Entire Supply Chain

Cite this: Environ. Sci. Technol. 2018, 52, 15, 8087–8094
Publication Date (Web):July 3, 2018
https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.8b01533

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society. This publication is licensed under these Terms of Use.

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Abstract

While the health effects of cigarette smoking are well recognized and documented, the environmental impacts of tobacco are less appreciated and often overlooked. Here, we evaluate tobacco’s global footprint across its entire supply chain, looking at resource needs, waste, and emissions of the full cradle-to-grave life cycle of cigarettes. The cultivation of 32.4 Mt of green tobacco used for the production of 6.48 Mt of dry tobacco in the six trillion cigarettes manufactured worldwide in 2014, were shown to contribute almost 84 Mt CO2 equiv emissions to climate change—approximately 0.2% of the global total, 490 000 tonnes 1,4-dichlorobenzene equiv to ecosystem ecotoxicity levels, and over 22 billion m3 and 21 Mt oil equiv to water and fossil fuel depletion, respectively. A typical cigarette was shown to have a water footprint of 3.7 L, a climate change contribution of 14 g CO2 equiv, and a fossil fuel depletion contribution of 3.5 g oil equiv. Tobacco competes with essential commodities for resources and places significant pressures on the health of our planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants. Increased awareness, as well as better monitoring and assessment of the environmental issues associated with tobacco, should support the current efforts to reduce global tobacco use as an important element of sustainable development.

Introduction

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Every year six trillion cigarettes are produced and 5.8 trillion consumed by one billion smokers worldwide. (1) Although smoking prevalence has been dropping in high-income countries, (2) global cigarette consumption has continued to grow, largely as a result of the increasing uptake of smoking by young people in developing regions. (3) While the health effects of smoking are now well established, the impacts of tobacco on the environment are less appreciated. These range from the use of scarce arable land and water for tobacco cultivation, use of harmful chemicals on tobacco farms, deforestation, and carbon emissions from manufacture and distribution processes, to the production of toxic waste and nonbiodegradable litter. (4−7) Furthermore, incorrect disposal of cigarette butts has been linked to numerous domestic (8) and wildland fires with devastating results. (9)
Over and above its direct impact on human health, the scale of the damage caused by tobacco to the natural world and natural resources is largely unknown. Although some tobacco companies produce sustainability reports (10−14) and life cycle assessments (LCA), (10,15,16) the assumptions and the methodologies used in these studies are not always transparent and often partially reported. Most of these assessments are limited to manufacturing processes and producers’ immediate supply chains, omitting integral preceding stages such as tobacco growing, curing, distribution, and product disposal, (17,18) and thus substantially underestimate the actual environmental costs of cigarette smoking.
From tobacco cultivation, curing, processing, cigarette manufacturing, and distribution, to use and final disposal, the tobacco industry’s supply chain is global and extensive. (19) To understand all the environmental impacts of cigarette smoking, it is essential to consider tobacco’s entire supply chain. In this Policy Analysis, we, therefore, present a systematic and transparent assessment of the environmental impacts of cigarettes, quantifying the environmental footprint of smoking across the global tobacco supply chain. A cumulative mass balance model was produced using material flow analysis (MFA), an established analytical method for quantifying flows and stocks of materials and substances; while the environmental footprint of cigarette smoking was captured from cradle-to-grave using life cycle assessment (LCA)—a well-established and internationally standardized method for assessing the potential environmental and health impacts of goods and services. (20)

Methodology

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A global cigarette production and consumption conceptual model was developed to calculate the resource needs and environmental emissions of the global tobacco supply chain (Figure 1). Data were obtained from a range of secondary sources, including industry and market research reports, peer reviewed studies, and a number of Ecoinvent data sets available in SimaPro 8. Wherever possible, production- and consumption-weighted global average amounts were used, and when necessary, representative global values of input and output flows were extrapolated from regional or company-specific data available (see Supporting Information for the full list of assumptions and data sources).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Conceptual framework and system boundaries of global cigarette production and consumption.

Material flow analysis was used to quantify the flows of natural resources and materials at the different stages of cigarette production and consumption, capturing both inputs (direct and indirect) and outputs. Additionally, because of a lack of data, selected direct inputs were also excluded (Figure 1). A cumulative mass balance model was produced based on typical mass flows per tonne of output tobacco at each stage in the supply chain, as well as the losses in tobacco mass across stages, all calculated through MFA (see Supporting Information for the full list of the mass flows considered).
The environmental impacts associated with global tobacco production and consumption were quantified through LCA, using the SimaPro 8 software (21) and the ReCiPe Midpoint (H) methodology. (22) The base year, scope, system boundaries, functional unit, and impact categories are summarized in Table 1, and a full description of the inputs, sources, and the assumptions used are reported in Supporting Information, together with the limitations and the uncertainty associated with these factors.
Table 1. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Study Scope and System Boundaries of Global Cigarette Production and Consumption
study featuresdescription
processes includedtobacco cultivation, curing, primary processing, cigarette manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal, plus transportation and waste management activities at every process stage
representative productcigarette sticks including manufactured and roll your own sticks containing 1 and 0.75 g of tobacco and accounting for 98.35% and 1.65% production, respectivelya
functional unita tonne of produced and consumed tobacco, equivalent to 1 million cigarette sticksb
scopeglobal cigarette production and consumption in one year
base year2014
mass flows allocated to tobacco100%
types of resource flows included in the analysiskey direct and indirect inputs and outputs
types of resource flows excluded from the analysisoffice supplies, cleaning products, chemicals and additives used in production and manufacturing processes, smoking accessories
issues excluded from impact analysissmoking-related fires, second-hand smoke, unsustainably sourced wood in curing, incorrectly disposed postconsumer waste that ends up in the environment (instead, all waste is assumed to be treated or deposited at landfill sites)
impact categories consideredclimate change, terrestrial acidification, freshwater eutrophication, marine eutrophication, human toxicity (excluding the health impacts of direct and second-hand smoking, as well as occupational exposure), terrestrial ecotoxicity, freshwater ecotoxicity, marine ecotoxicity, agricultural land occupation, urban land occupation, natural land transformation, water depletion, metal depletion, and fossil fuel depletion
a

The assumption that the average tobacco weight of 1 g in a typical manufactured cigarette based on the PMI reported tobacco weight (23) was tested in the sensitivity analysis by substituting it with 0.75 g.

b

The environmental impacts of a tonne of produced and consumed tobacco are equivalent to the impacts of a million smoked cigarette sticks.

Sensitivity analysis was carried out to evaluate how varying key assumptions used in the primary analysis could influence the total impact assessment outcomes and to identify the inputs where variation has the most impact on key outputs (see Supporting Information).

Results

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It was calculated that a total of 32.4 Mt of green tobacco leaf were cultivated on 4 million hectares of land, producing the 6.48 Mt of dry tobacco used to manufacture six trillion cigarette sticks across 500 factories worldwide. However, tobacco cultivation was found to be concentrated primarily in low- and middle-income regions—nine of the top ten tobacco producing countries were developing and four of those (India, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Malawi), low-income food-deficit countries. In most of these countries, the majority of all tobacco produced is destined for exports with less than 20% consumed locally (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Annual tonnage of tobacco in cigarette production and consumption for countries with over 1000 tonnes of tobacco flows in year 2014. (24−27)

The total material inputs for the global production of six trillion cigarette sticks in 2014 amounted to 27.2 Mt. The energy inputs exceeded 62 million GJ, the water inputs came to over 22 000 Mt, the total arable land input to 4 million hectares and the transportation of tobacco products reached 24.5 billion tkm of freight (Table 2 and Figure 3). The total outputs in addition to six trillion cigarettes included 25 Mt of solid waste, nearly 22 000 Mt of water, of which 55 Mt was wastewater from the processing and manufacturing stages and the rest was mainly losses to soil, water bodies, and air from irrigation at the farming stage, as well as almost 84 Mt CO2 equiv emissions to air (net of CO2 absorption by tobacco plants at the farming stage).
Table 2. Summary Annual Mass Flows in the Global Tobacco Supply Chain
inputs
stagesunitinputs per tonne of output tobaccototal output tobacco at each stage (Mt)total Inputs (millions)inputs per tonne of tobacco produced for consumption
water
cultivationtonne67832.421978.13675.3
processingtonne7.595.9845.47.6
manufacturingtonne2.475.9814.82.5
totaltonne 22038.23685.3 
energy
cultivationMJ8.5932.4278.346.5
processingMJ2775.981655.5276.8
manufacturingMJ100765.9860253.610075.8
totalMJ  62187.410399.2
material resources
cultivationtonne0.0332.41.070.2
curingtonne3.256.4821.13.5
processingtonne0.195.981.110.2
manufacturingtonne0.635.983.780.6
distributiontonne0.025.980.150.0
totaltonne  27.24.5
transport
cultivationtkm12.532.440567.7
curingtkm1006.48648108.4
processingtkm29005.9817342.02900.0
distributiontkm10195.986093.61019.0
totaltkm  24488.64095.1
land
cultivationm2123532.440000.26689.0
curingm20.136.480.840.1
processingm212.315.9873.612.3
manufacturingm20.535.983.150.5
totalm2  40077.76702.0
waste and emissions
stagesunitwaste and emissions per tonne of output tobaccototal output tobacco at each stage (Mt)total waste and emissions (millions)waste and emissions per tonne of produced and consumed tobacco
solid waste
cultivationtonne0.632.419.43.3
processingtonne0.085.980.50.1
manufacturingtonne0.25.981.20.2
use and final disposalatonne0.75.784.10.6
totaltonne  254.2
waste water and water emissions
cultivation (losses from irrigation)tonne67432.421844.53652.9
curing (losses from evaporation)tonne4.006.4825.94.3
processing (wastewater)tonne7.615.9845.57.6
manufacturing (wastewater)tonne1.505.989.01.5
totaltonne  219253666.4
emissions to air
cultivationt CO2 equiv0.6432.420.93.5
curingt CO2 equiv6.896.4844.67.5
processingt CO2 equiv0.185.981.10.2
manufacturingt CO2 equiv2.635.9815.72.6
distributiont CO2 equiv0.075.980.40.1
use and final disposalat CO2 equiv0.155.780.90.2
totalt CO2 equiv  8414.0
a

Amounts for the use and final disposal stage refer to consumed tobacco as opposed to produced tobacco in the preceding stages. It includes all postconsumer waste but assumes it is all treated or deposited at landfill sites.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Total annual input, waste, and emission flows across the global tobacco supply chain.

The global tobacco supply chain also contributed over 19 Mt of 1,4-dichlorobenzene equivalent (1,4-DB equiv, used as a reference unit in LCA to characterize the effects of toxic substances on human health and ecosystems) to human toxicity, and nearly 500 000 t 1,4-DB equiv to freshwater and marine ecosystems’ ecotoxicity levels, respectively. Tobacco drives almost 21 Mt oil equiv in fossil fuel depletion, nearly 3.3 Mt Fe equiv in metal depletion, and over 22.2 billion m3 in water depletion. Its terrestrial acidification potential was found to be in excess of 450 000 Mt SO2 equiv, while the total land use and transformation is almost 5.3 million hectares (Table 3). The activities accounting for the highest contribution across all impact categories were tobacco farming, cigarette manufacturing, and curing (Figure 4).
Table 3. Total Annual Environmental Impacts of the Global Tobacco Supply Chain
impact categoryunitfarmingacuringaprocessingacigarette manufacturingadistributionause and disposalatotala
climate changekg CO2 equiv208494467410731572038687083572
terrestrial acidificationkg SO2 equiv11924011782.42.9453
freshwater eutrophicationkg P equiv6.80.60.38.30.030.316
marine eutrophicationkg N equiv113.70.44.30.21.021
a

In millions.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Environmental impacts contribution of the global tobacco supply chain stages across the full life cycle of cigarette production and consumption

The sensitivity analysis showed variability in the environmental impact results in the range of ±10% across most categories (Table 4). LCA results were most sensitive to changes in parameters such as the rate of agrochemicals application on farms, type of fuel use in flue-curing, and the energy use in cigarette manufacturing. The relative contributions of the different stages in the supply chain remained largely unchanged with farming, curing and manufacturing still driving most of the environmental impacts. The uncertainty in the LCA results driven by geographical variation was found to vary greatly by region and depending on the practices adopted, particularly in the climate change, terrestrial ecosystems’ health and fossil fuel depletion categories (see Supporting Information).
Table 4. Upper and Lower Percent Variance Established in the Sensitivity Analysis Compared to the Total Impact Assessment Results
impact categoryunitstudy results (millions)variance (%)
climate changekg CO2 equiv83572±8
terrestrial acidificationkg SO2 equiv453±7
freshwater eutrophicationkg P equiv16±12
marine eutrophicationkg N equiv21±10
human toxicitykg 1,4-DB equiv19435±7
terrestrial ecotoxicitykg 1,4-DB equiv36±19
freshwater ecotoxicitykg 1,4-DB equiv489±9
marine ecotoxicitykg 1,4-DB equiv474±9
agricultural land occupationm2 a50788±6
urban land occupationm2 a2004±4
natural land transformationm264±6
water depletionm322203±8
metal depletionkg Fe equiv3282±4
fossil fuel depletionkg oil equiv20813±9
Considering that the incorrectly disposed postconsumer waste, unsustainably sourced wood, wildland, and domestic fires, and a number of the supply chain inputs were not included in the assessment, the reported impacts are likely to be underestimated.

Discussion

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Across the global tobacco supply chain, cultivation, curing, and manufacturing stand out as particularly resource-demanding and environmentally damaging stages. For tobacco farming, irrigation and fertilizer use together drive more than 70% of the environmental damage across most impact categories. At the curing stage, the direct burning of wood and coal accounts for more carbon emissions than all other stages combined, releasing at least 45 Mt CO2 equiv globally in a year (that is excluding the deforestation impacts driven by the unsustainably sourced wood). In cigarette manufacturing, the single most important driver of environmental impacts is energy use, which accounts for at least 60% contribution across more than half of all impact categories. The choice of energy source plays an important role in mitigating tobacco’s environmental footprint. For example, if coal dominates the energy mix, the carbon footprint of cigarette manufacturing may be higher by as much as 35%, while the damage to freshwater and marine ecosystems would be at least 20% greater than the typical impacts estimated. However, comparisons of the levels of environmental damage are not clear-cut. For instance, although natural gas may have a lower carbon footprint than coal, it can lead to higher levels of land transformation and fossil fuel depletion.
The non-tobacco elements of cigarettes, such as filters, cigarette paper, and packaging, all carry a burden on the environment too. More than 1 Mt of filters and about 2.15 Mt of packaging are estimated to be used by the tobacco industry in a year (excluding cardboard boxes for shipping). The resources used in the production of these elements and all the postconsumer waste that is created and which has to be treated or ends up contaminating the environment, (4,28) further exacerbate tobacco’s environmental footprint.
Comparing the overall environmental footprint of tobacco to that of other crops—specifically those considered by WHO FCTC as potentially viable substitutes to tobacco in a number of developing countries (29) and considering only the cradle-to-farm gate stages of crop production—we estimate that the nearly 1300 m2 of agricultural land used for the production of a tonne of green tobacco could produce about 6 tonnes of tomatoes or almost half a tonne of wheat in regions suitable for their cultivation (e.g., in Sub-Saharan Africa (29)). Similarly, the water footprint of 670 m3 per tonne of tobacco is comparable to that of a tonne of rice and is between 5 and 8 times greater than that of tomatoes or potatoes (see Supporting Information).
A typical smoked cigarette stick was shown to have a water footprint of 3.7 L, a fossil fuel use equivalent to 3.5 g of oil, and a climate change impact of 14 g of CO2 equiv emissions. Over a lifetime, a person smoking a pack a day for 50 years has a carbon footprint of 5.1 tCO2 equiv, which would require 132 tree seedlings grown for 10 years to offset. (30) Their water footprint of 1355 m3 is equivalent to almost 62 years’ supply for any three people’s basic hygiene and food hygiene needs, (31) and the lifetime fossil fuel depletion of 1.3 tonne oil equiv is comparable to the electricity use of an average household in India for almost 15 years. (32) Additionally, comparing the annual environmental footprint of such a smoker (7.3 kg tobacco per year) to the global average red meat (14.4 kg meat (33)) and sugar (24.3 kg sugar (34)) consumption per capita per year demonstrates that the resource depletion and pollution levels caused by cigarette use can be several times greater than or least as high as those driven by other typical consumer commodities. For instance, in one year a smoker contributes almost 5 times more to water depletion, nearly 2 and 10 times more to fossil fuel depletion than an average consumer of red meat and sugar, respectively, and 4 times more to climate change than a sugar consumer (see Supporting Information).
The sector’s total annual contribution to climate change at 84 Mt CO2 equiv, makes up about 0.2% of the world’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That is nearly as much as entire countries’ GHG emissions such as Peru and Israel and more than twice that of Wales. (35) The annual fossil fuel depletion of 21 Mt oil equiv driven by tobacco is comparable to the total primary energy consumption of New Zealand and Hungary. (36) The sector’s contribution to metal depletion at 3.3 Mt Fe equiv is at least as high as that caused by 8% of the USA’s annual mine production of iron ore, (37) while its water depletion at 22 200 Mt is more than 2.5 times the annual water supply to the entire population of the UK. (38) With almost 90% of tobacco leaf production and the majority of cigarette consumption now concentrated in the less developed regions, the environmental burden and the many risks associated with tobacco are largely borne by lower-income countries. Thus, for example, while Malawi and Tanzania are among the top 10 tobacco growing countries, they consume less than 5% of the tobacco they produce. At the same time, in the UK, Canada, Portugal, and Austria, with no or very little domestic tobacco leaf or cigarette production, (24,39) smoking cigarettes, literally means burning other countries’ resources.
As the industry claims to have already delivered some improvements in efficiency in parts of the supply chain, benefits from further improvements appear unlikely, particularly in light of the increasing levels of global production and consumption. For instance, a 24% reduction in carbon and water footprints between 2010 and 2015 were reported by one manufacturer, (13) and a 47% reduction in carbon footprint from the 2000 baseline for another. (10) However, these values cover only a limited part of the tobacco supply chain. Moreover, aggressive tobacco marketing in developing countries means that globally, total tobacco consumption is growing, and so therefore will its environmental impacts. It is highly unlikely that any efficiency improvements could potentially outweigh the benefit that cuts in absolute production and consumption would deliver across the board. For example, a drop in cigarette smoking to the 1970-level of 3.26 trillion sticks per year (40) would almost half tobacco’s global footprint across all impact categories, while potential efficiency improvements may only lead to incremental reductions across selected categories. In contrast, should cigarette consumption be allowed to reach the predicted 9 trillion sticks by 2025, (41) this could result yearly in agricultural land use of 7.9 million hectares, water and fossil fuel depletion of 34 billion m3 and 5 Mt oil equiv, respectively, and annual CO2 equiv emissions reaching almost 130 Mt.
In a world facing enormous pressures on natural resources, tobacco competes with commodities that are essential for humanity and adds significant pressures on the health of our planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants. For example, the world’s top cigarette consuming country—China—harvests over 3 Mt of tobacco leaves using over 1.5 million hectares of arable land and significant fresh water resources, while habitats suffer from water scarcity and nearly 134 million of its people are undernourished. (42) Given also the devastating health and negative social and economic effects of the global tobacco epidemic, the primary goal of tobacco control and resource management policies should be to significantly reduce if not eliminate cigarette production and consumption, protecting not only human health but also the environment and societies’ right to sustainable development. To do so effectively, it is important that governments mandate systematic and extensive reporting from the tobacco industry on the environmental impacts of their operations that should then be communicated to consumers on top of the health impacts of cigarette smoking. The introduction of better monitoring and assessment of the environmental issues associated with tobacco, will keep consumers informed and further support tobacco control and resource management policies.

Supporting Information

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The Supporting Information is available free of charge on the ACS Publications website at DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b01533.

  • Methods, full list of assumptions and data sources, and additional figures and tables (PDF)

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Most electronic Supporting Information files are available without a subscription to ACS Web Editions. Such files may be downloaded by article for research use (if there is a public use license linked to the relevant article, that license may permit other uses). Permission may be obtained from ACS for other uses through requests via the RightsLink permission system: http://pubs.acs.org/page/copyright/permissions.html.

Author Information

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  • Corresponding Author
  • Authors
    • Maria Zafeiridou - Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, London, SW7 1NA, England
    • Nicholas S Hopkinson - National Heart and Lung Institute, Royal Brompton Hospital Campus, Fulham Road, London SW3 6NP, England
  • Notes
    The authors declare no competing financial interest.

Acknowledgments

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No funding was received for the research presented in this manuscript. We thank the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Action on Smoking and Health (UK) and the Framework Convention Alliance for their support in the communication of the research findings.

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  • Abstract

    Figure 1

    Figure 1. Conceptual framework and system boundaries of global cigarette production and consumption.

    Figure 2

    Figure 2. Annual tonnage of tobacco in cigarette production and consumption for countries with over 1000 tonnes of tobacco flows in year 2014. (24−27)

    Figure 3

    Figure 3. Total annual input, waste, and emission flows across the global tobacco supply chain.

    Figure 4

    Figure 4. Environmental impacts contribution of the global tobacco supply chain stages across the full life cycle of cigarette production and consumption

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