10 Environmental Impacts of Smoking

The environmental impacts of smoking have become a prevalent issue to be discussed, as they have not only affected human health but also the health of the environment.

Consumption of tobacco has become concentrated in the developing world where the health, economic, and environmental burden is heaviest and likely to increase.

Statistics show that around 1.1 billion people aged 15 and over smoke, with 80% living in LMICs (low and middle-income countries). Tobacco smoking kills up to half of its users; this equates to 8 million deaths a year globally and is currently the world’s single biggest cause of preventable death.

Tobacco use remains a significantly important public health issue. Smoking doesn’t just negatively impact the health of individuals; it also endangers the health of the environment.

Hence, in addition to research focusing on the direct effects of cigarette smoking on human health, greater attention must be attributed to the harmful effects of tobacco on the environment and the ecosystem.

Cigarettes are a composition of paper tubes containing chopped-up tobacco leaves, usually with a filter at the mouth end. They are highly engineered products designed to deliver a steady dose of nicotine.

Cigarette waste can make its way into the environment where it pollutes water, air, and land with toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and residual nicotine.  

An estimated 766,571 metric tonnes of cigarette butts make their way into the environment every year, and according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, at least five disposable e-cigarettes are being thrown away every second in the United States, amounting to 150 million devices per year, which together contain enough lithium for about 6,000 Teslas. The environmental impacts of tobacco are expansive and often overlooked.

Furthermore, cigarettes kill more people per year than guns, and not just smokers, but the harm they cause the planet we live on, leading to irreparable damage to ecosystems, polluting water, land, and air, and pushing the earth towards a global cataclysm.

Hence, living things and the environment at large are adversely impacted. Reading further in this article are the impacts of smoking on the environment.

Environmental Impacts of Smoking

10 Environmental Impacts of Smoking

Here are a couple of mind-numbing expositions about smoking and the extent of environmental damage and pollution it causes.

  • Impact of Climate Change
  • Deforestation
  • Health Risk    
  • Waste Generation        
  • Water Pollution
  • Soil Contamination
  • Air Contamination
  • Outbreak of Fire
  • Plastic Pollution
  • Effect on Animals

1. Impact of Climate Change

Diverse authors report that in comparison to the average consumer of sugar in one year, a smoker contributes almost five times more to water depletion, nearly ten times more to fossil fuel depletion, and four times more to climate change.

consumption of tobacco releases carbon dioxide equivalent to driving 17 million gas-powered cars each year, according to a 2022 report from the World Health Organization.

This gas builds up in the atmosphere and, over time, acts as a greenhouse gas, causing a greenhouse effect leading to global warming, which finally leads to variation in the earth’s climatic system.

Research predicts that by 2025 cigarette consumption may rise from current levels of six trillion to nine trillion sticks, this prediction has significant environmental consequences.

Research evidence has irrefutably demonstrated the level of damage smoking is posing to the sustainability of our environment.

2. Deforestation

For the production of cigarettes, trees are affected as they are the major raw material for the production process of cigarettes.

Every year, the tobacco industry is responsible for a massive amount of deforestation across the world, contributing to the vicious cycle of climate change.

Research has found that growing tobacco contributes to deforestation, especially in the developing world. Currently, 5.3 million hectares of fertile land is used to grow tobacco.

There is evidence of substantial, and largely irreversible losses of trees. Deforestation for tobacco plantations also promotes soil degradation and “failing yields” or the capacity for the land to support the growth of any other crops or vegetation.  Tobacco farming is responsible for 5% of all global deforestation.

Furthermore, Tobacco farmers typically clear land by burning it. But this land is often agriculturally marginal and is abandoned after only a few seasons, contributing in many cases to desertification.

Burning increases greenhouse gas levels by generating water and air pollutants, and decreasing forest cover which would otherwise absorb the almost 84 million metric tons of CO2 emitted by tobacco production annually thereby, contributing to up to 20% of annual greenhouse gas increases.

3. Health Risk       

Smoking sickens and kills people lots of them. More than 8 million people die due to smoking every year, according to estimates, with massive economic costs attached.

But these health impacts run deeper, and go beyond those who consume the product, say experts.

Researchers and activists in tobacco-growing countries describe a situation whereby many tobacco farmers become ensnared in a cycle of farming that is not only potentially damaging to their and their families’ health and the environment but is also rarely financially viable.

4. Waste Generation

Smokers litter 47% of the cigarette butts they smoke. Over the past two decades, cigarette filters have been recorded as the most abundant litter item worldwide.

Research has consistently demonstrated low levels of proper cigarette disposal, with an estimated 766,571 metric tonnes of cigarette butts being littered.

It is not just the volume of this waste that is a problem; it has also been shown to be an environmental hazard. The tobacco industry should be held accountable for the costs of addressing the issue of cigarette litter in our environment.

For instance, in the United States, cigarette butts are the most frequently littered items on beaches and waterways.  Statistically, 79% of smokers consider cigarette butts to be litter, but the majority of smokers (72%) reported littering a butt on the ground at least once in their lifetime and 64% reported tossing them out of a car window at least once in their lifetime.

5. Water Pollution

Cigarette and e-cigarette waste can pollute soil, beaches, and waterways. Cigarette butts cause pollution by being carried as runoff to drains and from there to rivers, beaches and oceans.

Preliminary studies show that organic compounds (such as nicotine, pesticide residues, and metal) seep from cigarette butts into aquatic ecosystems, becoming acutely toxic to fish and microorganisms.

Also the most concerning is that all of those pollutants also reach drinking water reservoirs and can pose a significant health hazard.

6. Soil Contamination

Apart from being unsightly and taking years to properly degrade, cigarette butts also have a profound impact on the soil. A lot of harmful chemicals that are in cigarettes can be found in cigarette butts.

Once disposed of, those butts start leaching those chemicals into the soil. Especially worrisome are heavy metals that can be absorbed by plants through the soil as some of them are extremely toxic for humans and animals.

Nicotine is also an issue. Some studies show that plants will absorb nicotine through their roots if the soil is contaminated by cigarette butts. Plants also ‘inhale’ nicotine through the air that contains it.

7. Air Contamination

Secondhand smoke contains over 4,000 compounds, most of which are toxic and over 60 of them are carcinogenic. Smoking poses a considerable health threat to non-smokers and animal and plant life on the planet.

Tobacco-free policies instigated by many countries in the world are successful in bringing down air pollution indoors but do little to affect the overall quality of air on Earth.

Smoking serves to increase our carbon footprint because most smokers today expect to be able to smoke outside, on heated patios.

Tobacco smoking releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year which greatly pollutes the air leading to an uncomfortable state of the atmosphere.

8. Outbreak of Fire

Smoking is one of the leading causes of residential fires and thousands of homes and apartments burn down every year because of improperly discarded cigarette butts. Thousands die in fires worldwide every year because of smoking.

Also, smoking heavily contributes to wildfires. While beneficial when they occur naturally, smoke-related wildfires destroy habitats needlessly and cost people their lives and livelihoods.

It’s estimated that smoke-related fires cost the U.S. a whopping 7 billion dollars in 1998. Carelessly tossed, burning cigarette butts can easily set an entire forest ablaze.

Also, even extinguished cigarette butts are dangerous because the plastic material that they are made of is very flammable and can catch fire under certain circumstances.

9. Plastic Pollution

Used cigarette filters can contain thousands of chemicals and contribute to global plastic pollution.

10. Effect on Animals

As much as they are toxic to humans, cigarette smoking is also toxic to animals.  Our wildlife suffers greatly from smoking and tobacco waste.

Secondhand smoke harms the small lungs of an animal at a much faster rate, and the litter from cigarettes does not digest when eaten.  

Cigarette waste poses a threat to marine life as well. Research shows that certain algae die after being exposed to water-containing compounds that are equivalent to two discarded cigarette butts.

Those algae are at the bottom of the food chain all other sea organisms are feeding on it and getting the same amount of poisoning, all the way up to fish humans eat regularly.

The most common victims are beach-dwellers, large turtles, sea cows, and seals. They frequently visit contaminated beaches, where they eat and feed their young with cigarette butts. Scientists have also found cigarette butts in the stomachs of hundreds of other species, such as birds, cats, dogs, and more.

Cigarette butts are the number one pollutant of beaches in Hawaii and California over 3 million pieces have been collected along Californian beaches in 2009.


Tobacco smoking isn’t just a threat to your health; it is a deeply unethical attitude that threatens the environment and traps those most in need in cycles of inequality.

As we face ever more critical decisions about how to preserve our planet and sustain our future, this hugely damaging act needs to face up to its inconvenient truths.


Environmental Consultant at Environment Go! | + posts

Ahamefula Ascension is a Real Estate Consultant, Data Analyst, and Content writer. He is the founder of Hope Ablaze Foundation and a Graduate of Environmental Management in one of the prestigious colleges in the country. He is obsessed with Reading, Research and Writing.

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