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Tobacco and the environment

Tobacco and the environment

Prof. G. Mangiaracina.

Harm caused by tobacco is identified in at least three dimensions: the person, the economy, and the environment.

Prof. Giacomo Mangiaracina, Adventist scientist and a global leading expert on tobaccology.

Starting from the 90's we have know there are many problems caused by tobacco companies. In 1995, studies in neuroscience have produced compelling evidence of nicotine addiction and its links to brain receptors. We are very familiar with how these receptors are made and we know their characteristics, size, structure, and their placement in a precise part: at the base of the brain, in the deepest portion where emotions are generated, neurobiologists call this the front part of the Ventral Tegmental Area.

We know the damage that smoking causes to the entire system of any living organism.  There are no organs that can avoid being attacked by the 4,000 chemicals that are emitted from cigarette smoke, of which at least 50 are definitely carcinogenic, producing chronic, slow and progressive lesions, the effects take time and are not immediately visible, a far cry from emergency situations.

We call them "smokers", but the experts call them "tobacco users," or people suffering from pathological addiction, even worse than heroin and very difficult to stop. One of the characteristics common to all addictions is the enormous economic burden to acquire the daily dose. A smoker spends about 2,000 euros per year and if you take a household with multiple smokers, in a lifetime they would smoke the equivalent of the price of an apartment. But who are they giving this apartment to?  Most of it, 76% of the taxes, goes to the State (not 21% as for any other product on the free market), but a large portion goes to big American and British companies that share the profits of the entire tobacco market in Italy.

It can be said, therefore, that smoking in a way is good for the State Teasury, but it's not. Because of high cost of chronic diseases caused by tobacco, of working days lost to sick leave, loss of productivity caused to businesses by employees who refrain from work to smoke, the 80,000 Italians that prematurely die each year (30,000 for lung cancer only), and for the cost of anti-smuggling operations, the State ultimately is considered at a loss. So every smoker is actually a cost and expense for society as a whole.

And here we have already entered in one of the dark faces of tobacco. Various researches have put together a good amount of data on the economic damage caused by tobacco. I, Giacomo Mangiaracina, manage the Italian department on the site www.treatobacco.net: there is a section fully devoted to the research on the economic impact of tobacco, on the costs and benefits of quitting smoking, which is available to those wishing to further explore or research this matter.

Damages in Three Dimensions

We have already gone beyond smoking as an addiction. There are other issues that we define smoke-related and which concern not only the smoker's health, but that of the entire planet. Therefore harm caused by tobacco is identified in at least three dimensions: the person (toxicity, addiction, chronic disease, tumor-causing, damage to the reproductive system), the economy (health and social expenses, smuggling, crime, poverty and exploitation), and the environment (contamination of water, air and soil, depletion of crops, deforestation, fires, urban cleanliness). We have already mentioned the first two. We will deal more extensively with the environmental aspect. But even here on an educational level, it is useful to distinguish two categories, one more confined, territorial, part of a greater population density areas, and the other more extensive and worldwide. The "territorial" is represented below, in Figure 1, we will follow and analize it.

Fig.1 - Environmental damage in greater human density areas.

  1. pollution indoors
  2. exaust fumes from automobiles
  3. fires
  4. urban cleanliness
  5. pollution outdoors

Cigarette smoke is a major indoor air pollutant. There is the exhaled pollution from the lungs of smokers (firsthand smoke) and that which is emitted spontaneously from a cigarette burning (secondhand smoke), consuming the paper and the shredded tobacco leaves. Both of these are treated chemically. Smoking "secondhand" is even more dangerous because it is not filtered by the smoker's lungs. That which is dispersed in a closed environment has a myriad of such hazardous substances that the International Institute for Research on Cancer (IARC) has called secondhand smoke a Class A carcinogen.  It is impossible to define the minimum safe dose before it causes cancer. That is to say that even small amounts, particularly in certain susceptible individuals can degenerate and trigger a tumor. Asbestos is one of the ingredients in cigarettes.

In recent years we have discovered the role of micro-dust, identified with the initials PM (Particulate Matter, or micro PARTICULATE or "fine particles"). It's made up of particles from 1 to 10 microns, therefore, not visible to the naked eye, they are permanently suspended in the air and are inhaled with each breath. Detectors have been installed in big cities to continuously monitor the PM-10 (particulate matter measuring 10 microns or more). When it reaches the level of 50 micrograms (mcg) per cubic meter (m3), traffic is blocked.  Only one cigarette emenates 200 mcg/m3 of PM-10 in a room or closed environment.  And if you continue to smoke it can easily exceed 2000 mcg/m3. Obviously, raising the emission of the fine dust from tobacco smoke also affects the ultrafine powder of 1 to 2.5 mcg/m3, and it's specifically the particles of 2.5 microns that are shown to have a direct link with the development of lung cancer because they are deposited deep in the respiratory tract. Researchers at the Institute for Tumors in Milan have shown that a single cigarette emits a quantity of micro particulates by far, superior to those of a diesel engine Euro4 (fig.2).

Fig.2 - comparison between the PM emission from a cigarette with that of a diesel engine.

The law banning smoking in places of work and leisure is actually based on scientific evidence, as protection for non-smokers, which also represent the vast majority of the population.  There are about 12 million smokers in Italy and 48 million non-smokers, or 80% of Italians. The ban on smoking in public places will soon be applied in all countries.

POLLUTION Outdoors

All that has been said about passive smoking in enclosed spaces, also applies to outdoor locations. Because 12 million Italians consume a total of 51 billion cigarettes a year, it is easy to calculate the total toxic substances released into the environment every year. ENEA has calculated a rough estimate that smokers pollute the air in an amount equal to or greater than vehicle traffic, therefore Codacons (Consumer Association) gave an aggressive notice to large cities administrations that when the PM-10 exposure exceeds the safe level, to "block" even smokers in addition to vehicle traffic.

The outdoors environmental problem of POLLUTION has another threatening facet. That of cigarette butts thrown away. When you consider that a cigarette butt takes anywhere from 1 to 5 years to biodegrade, you can also understand why cigarette butts represent the most waste products found in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Every three pieces of waste taken from the seabed are cigarette butts.

Until now, the cigarette butts were deemed general or "undifferentiated" type of waste, meaning garbage that is neither glass nor plastic, nor metal. The real problem is that this is hazardous waste. If a cigarette butt contains various toxic substances including radioactive materials present in tobacco (polonium-210), then 51 billion cigarette butts expose a large amount of toxicity in the environment described in Figure 3. A cigarette butt is toxic to the point that if a child accidentally swallows one, he might end up in the hospital for intoxication. Cigarette butts mostly pollute the sea because they largely end up in storm drains, sewers, rivers and finally into the sea. Toxic substances in the sea have been studied by technicians at ENEA, an Italian Agency for SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT and new technology. A cigarette butt can kill plankton and micro-organisms useful to the marine ECOSYSTEM, and numerous butts intoxicate and kill larger organisms. When accidentally swallowed, they are responsible for the deaths of at least a million fish, turtles and seabirds each year.

Figure 3 – Overall calculation of substances in Italy that are annually released in the environment with cigarette butts. 

Nicotine 324 Tons

Polonium-210 1872 million Bq

Volatile Compounds 1800 Tons

Toxic Gases 21.6 Tons

Tar and concentration             1440 Tons

Cellulose Acetate    12240 Tons

Fire Hazards

Spontaneous combustion is practically non-existent. The fires on the edge of the roads and highways, which occur annually during summer months, are due to smokers tossing lit cigarette butts from windows of moving vehicles. The hyperventilation caused by tossing the butt out of the window increases the combustion temperature, making it more likely to trigger a fire if in contact with dried brushwood. Traffic police advises motorists not to smoke while driving and Highway Companies have published information leaflets on the danger of this irresponsible act. Fires by the roadside, in most cases are contained, but at other times the effects may spread out to the fields and forests. However, the majority of fires due to cigarettes occur in the home. In a study done at the University of California in the year 2000, it was discovered that in the United States each year around 100,000 fires are attributed to cigarette smoking, with deaths in 30% of the cases. In 2004, the National Fire Protection Association reported that deaths from fires associated with smoking in 1999 increased by 19% compared to previous years. In 2008 a so-called "Fire Safe" system was created where cigarettes are produced with additional strips of paper. The two or three additional bands of paper are less porous and chemically treated to make sure the cigarette is extinguished when left lit up. The following year in the US this was made mandatory (Figure 4).

Car Accidents

Among the environmental damages, we also add car accidents for the widespread careless behaviour of smokers at the wheel. I conducted a study (a movie that talks about it can be found on Youtube under "smoking at the wheel is constant and real") and it shows that smoking while driving is more dangerous than using the telephone. The time in which the person is distracted by not looking at the road to reach for the package, light up and smoke is equivalent to 11.6 seconds, not considering a gust of wind and the possibilities of cigarette ashes falling on you or going into your eyes, while the average distractions during a phone call is 10.7 seconds. However, driving while using the phone is against the rules of the road, while smoking is allowed. In 2011, the Health Committee of the Senate has recognized the dangers of smoking at the wheel, but the Board of Public Works has decided that we can continue smoking because deaths from road accidents have actually decreased in the last decade. Obviously smoking for drivers is a distractive behavior adding the fact that while smoking you may also have to answer a phone call, tune the radio or be distracted in various circumstances. Unfortunately there are no statistics that document how many road accidents happen while the driver was smoking.

Urban Cleanliness

Cigarette butts that are tossed away every year in the streets, sidewalks, parks and pedestrian areas of our cities are also a problem for urban cleanliness. Just look around you, there are not only butts but also packs of cigarettes carelessly thrown away, as if throwing away a cigarette onto the streets after smoking is something entirely normal. Smokers and 51 billion butts cause a lot of debris. The problem is not only in Italy, although it does not take place in Switzerland or Germany. To better understand the magnitude of the phenomenon and the damage, years ago the town of Prague, in the Czech Republic, exhibited to the public, at various strategic points of the city, huge plexiglass containers overflowing with cigarette butts.  This showed the people the total amount gathered in the city in one day. The problem is more serious than we think because the cigarette butt is so small that it takes longer to remove it, especially if stuck in between the cobble stones, and this extra time results in an enormous cost to the administrator of a large city. The mayor of San Francisco spends more than $ 11 million to remove cigarette butts.

Impact on the Environment 

Let's start with crops. Big tobacco companies want the best flourishing plants of highest quality. To grow a tobacco plant, it depletes the soil and it needs fertilization with phosphates, nitrogenous substances and potassium. After harvesting, the depleted soil only permits the cultivation of vegetables but not wheat or cereal, and you cannot grow tobacco for two consecutive years for the second production would be of very poor quality. Therefore, the easiest way to get an abundant and systematic agricultural production of excellent tobacco quality, is to find virgin land, or tear down forests to make way for new crops. It is estimated that each year about 2.5 million hectares of forest are torn down to grow tobacco. All this accelerates soil depletion, leading to deforestation, it threatens over 2 million animal species and risks to put entire local communities in crisis. 

The intensive cultivation of tobacco brings worldwide attention to two important issues, the use of child labour in the fields at a very low cost, and risk extinction, now averted, of an entire ethnic group, that of the Huichol Indians of Mexico.

The Huicholes are an indigineous group of nomadic farmers who move from one region to another in search of fertile land to cultivate. The tobacco companies have therefore recruited them for decades to grow tobacco. After a few years, thousands of Huicholes died and there were many cases of serious disease in all ages. The truth was made known publicly to the world only in the nineties. The cause was the massive exposure to pesticides and toxic substances that they were forced to use without any precautions or training for human protection in growing tobacco. So there was mass poisoning caused by exposure to about 200 toxins. In 1995, journalist Patricia Diaz Romo produced a documentary that started a lawsuit against this massacre. It is possible to see the report on youtube under "Huicholes and pesticides".

There is also another intrinsic message: smokers do not assimilate only tobacco smoke, but also the toxins from pesticides that are still intensively used today in tobacco production.

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