Smoking also harms the planet

The tobacco industry emits 84 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. One cigarette butt can contaminate 50 liters of fresh water.

Smoking also harms the planet
Tobacco smoking also harms the planet. Photo by Jeroen Bosch / Unsplash

If cigarette consumers need one more reason to quit smoking, due to the serious effects on their health and that of those around them, and in addition to the eight million deaths a year worldwide, we must add the profound impact that the tobacco industry has on the environment: on the soil, water and air, says María Guadalupe Ponciano Rodríguez, of the UNAM's School of Medicine (FM).

Tobacco destroys the habitat "further damaging people's health due to the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, consumption and disposal" of its products, states the World Health Organization (WHO). Since the 1970s, according to the organization, 1.5 billion hectares of forests have been lost on the planet, mainly tropical, due to the planting of this product, which has contributed to 20 percent of the annual increase in greenhouse gases.

Trees are cut down to clear the soil to grow Nicotiana tabacum L. plants, and wood is burned to cure its leaves after harvest. To manufacture 300 cigarettes (15 packs), approximately one whole tree is needed, and about 3.5 million hectares of forest are destroyed each year for cultivation. If around 7.4 billion cigarettes are smoked in the world every year, "we have to imagine what we are talking about", warned the coordinator of the FM's Tobacco Research and Prevention Program.

Greenhouse gas emissions from this industry amount to 84 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to launching 280,000 rockets into outer space.

In addition to the above, there are those produced by 1.3 billion smokers, smoke, and cigarette butts: the latter mainly affect beaches. A cigarette butt thrown "down the drain can contaminate 50 liters of fresh water and 10 liters of salt water. This, and their slow biodegradation, contribute to soil and water pollution, and many of them are also the main cause of forest fires, together with bonfires," points out Ponciano Rodríguez.

The leading countries in tobacco products on the planet (2020) are China, India, and Brazil, according to the statistics portal Statista. In 2018 Mexico ranked seventh in the Americas, behind Brazil, the United States, Argentina, Cuba, Guatemala, and Canada, according to the trade blog Mundi; and it is estimated that approximately 15.6 million Mexicans are smokers.

The WHO established this date in 1987 to call attention to the smoking epidemic and its lethal effects. This day reminds smokers of the damage caused by this practice, and suggests that they do not smoke on that day, or "become aware of their addiction". For the expert, on this date, it is necessary to inform the population of the dangers it represents, since smokers have "defense mechanisms" that make them think: this habit "causes cancer, but it won't happen to me; it causes emphysema, but I'm fine".

Some will be able to stop consuming cigarettes without difficulty, but others will become aware of the addictive capacity of nicotine and will consider that they cannot continue in abstinence, that their body is asking for this substance, and that, perhaps, they need professional support to quit. "An important question they should ask themselves is: why do I smoke, what am I looking for when I do it, and that can lead them to reflect that it is time to free themselves from this addiction that claims so many lives".

Health at risk

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable mortality. Tobacco consumption in its different forms, such as cigarettes, pipes, cigars, etc., has a significant impact on health. Up to seven thousand chemical substances can be found in the smoke, of which about 250 are highly toxic, and 60 to 70 cause cancer.

When they enter the body through the respiratory system, they produce chronic and degenerative conditions, such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which together constitute chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; lung cancer -eight to nine cases are related to direct or indirect exposure to tobacco smoke, that is to say, they occur in smokers and passive smokers-, tongue, larynx, bladder, etcetera.

The cardiovascular impact is also important. It has been seen that the blood of smokers has a different density which, together with the alteration of platelets, constitutes a risk factor for thrombus formation. The lumen of veins and arteries is also reduced; all this constitutes a "time bomb": cerebral vascular events and heart attacks.

There are also repercussions on the reproductive system: in men, there is a reduction in the number of spermatozoa and their motility; in those over 50 years of age who have smoked throughout their lives, erection problems. In women, early menopause may occur up to six years earlier.

When they smoke directly or indirectly during pregnancy, especially in the first trimester, congenital malformations such as oral cleft lip, serious alterations in the heart, or strabismus, among others that affect the product, may occur.

The healing processes are slower because the blood has a lower concentration of oxygen, and osteoporosis is more frequent: a smoker can have 15 percent less bone density, which puts her at risk of suffering from the disease or having fractures.

These ailments, which require treatments that result in high costs for the health systems, says Ponciano Rodríguez, are preventable, as are the more than 60,000 deaths a year (169 every day) that are currently recorded in Mexico.


The university professor emphasizes that no study proves that vapers or electronic cigarettes can be an effective tool for quitting smoking. "The liquid they use contains substances such as propylene glycol, ethylene glycol, glycerin, colorants, flavorings, and nicotine which, I reiterate, is a highly addictive drug." In addition, they use lithium batteries that end up in the trash and hurt the environment.

In smoking cessation clinics, such as the one at UNAM, "we try to get people to change their smoking-related behaviors. We put a transdermal patch to send the body the nicotine it needs, but without the need to smoke or put anything in the mouth; instead, these devices perpetuate the same behavior". That is why some people ask for support to stop using them.

Currently, there are effective medications to quit smoking; there are nicotine replacement therapies, and "we have even done work with transcranial magnetic stimulation. We have a good arsenal of medications and tools to help the patient, which has clinically proven their safety and efficacy.

As part of two research projects, one of them in conjunction with the National Institute of Respiratory Diseases, the FM will carry out free studies, such as spirometry, to determine how the respiratory system of e-cigarette users is doing.