The Geographic Health Equity Alliance invited Kyra Hill, J.D., from the Public Health Law Center to present at CADCA’s 31st Annual National Leadership Forum in February 2021. Her presentation, “Tackling Tobacco Trash: How do we address tobacco product pollution?” addresses the commercial tobacco product pollution problem and discusses potential policy tools to tackle it. We are pleased to share the recording from this virtual session with you, along with Kyra’s accompanying article to the video below.

The (Other) Dark Side of the Commercial Tobacco Industry

We know that commercial tobacco kills people who use it. We have known that for many decades. Yet, people still pick up smoking. Social pressure and addiction are powerful forces.

Young people who are passionate about social and environmental justice are also a powerful force, however, and the tobacco industry knows that. The tobacco industry has actively tried for decades to bury information about the true environmental and social impacts of its products, but it is beginning to lose that fight as more people become aware of how damaging these products are to the health of the planet.

For example, few people who smoke know that the filters in cigarettes are made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that never disappears but instead breaks into microplastics that end up being ingested by humans and wildlife. Cigarette butts also continue to off-gas nicotine and other pollutants after they are thrown on the ground, even after a cigarette looks like it has been put “out.” Research shows cigarette butts are discarded near where they are sold, meaning they end up disproportionately in communities of color and low-income communities where tobacco retailers are more densely located. Six trillion cigarettes are manufactured every year, and estimates from the industry itself suggest that 65% of cigarette butts are thrown on the ground. This results in a lot of plastic and pollution.

Commercial tobacco products have hidden upstream impacts, as well. Billions of trees are chopped down and burned every year to dry tobacco. This practice has devastating climate change and ecosystem impacts. Not only does it destroy forests, which are important carbon sinks (natural systems that suck up and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere), but it also releases CO2 into the atmosphere.

Human rights abuses are also rampant in the tobacco growing industry, both in the US and abroad. Children, who continue to be employed in tobacco fields, can be severely sickened from the nicotine present in the plant itself. Children and adults are also exposed to pesticides when performing fieldwork and often are not provided proper protective clothing or pesticide training, resulting in illness and developmental problems.

E-cigarettes have their own unique environmental footprint because the nicotine present in them is classified under federal law as a particularly toxic form of hazardous waste. Their batteries can also cause physical and environmental damage by exploding and catching on fire.

Young people today have shown that they can and will use their voices and power to shift the conversation surrounding human impact on the environment. I believe that empowering them with facts and data about the environmental costs of commercial tobacco will similarly create a richer and more inclusive conversation about the toll it takes on the world.

Additional Resources

Presentation slides