Not cool, not healthy, not sustainable

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We all know that tobacco is bad, and yet many continue to use tobacco products, mainly cigarettes knowing its harmful effects. It’s not easy to break an addiction, especially when it is something that is so connected to social ties as smoking is. However, this year’s World No Tobacco Day (31) intends to give one more reason to quit; the environment.

Yes, turns out that smoking isn’t just bad for your health, it’s bad for the planet too, bringing up valuable points for anyone passionate about protecting the environment reconsider the harm that is being wrought through smoking, which is harmful to the environment from the cultivation of tobacco, to the cigarette butt that is discarded after use.

There’s of course, the use of e-cigarettes, but that also brings the conversation of e-waste as well, so vaping and e-cigarette users can’t escape full liability either.

Bad for health

By inhaling cigarette smoke, the nicotine stimulates certain neurotransmitters in the brain, giving that ‘rush’ that smokers often talk about. But prolonged use creates nicotine dependency, where your body starts to crave that sensation and constantly seek after it. The problem is, with prolonged and increased use, a smoker needs to consume more cigarettes and higher nicotine doses in order to have the same reaction.

 Sadly, with this prolonged and heavier use comes the increase of blood pressure and narrowing of blood vessels and hardening of arteries which can lead to increased chances of a heart attacks or strokes. Prolonged use of nicotine has been found to lead to heartburn, diarrhoea, fatigue, dizziness and even affecting the areas of the brain responsible for attention, memory and learning.

The smoke and tar from smoking directly affects the activity of surface hairs in the airways leading to the lungs, which are meant to prevent dust and other particles reaching them. This means the lungs are left vulnerable. The carbon monoxide in the cigarette smoke doesn’t help either, binding with the red blood cells and preventing them from transporting vital oxygen throughout the body.

Smoking and use of tobacco products also directly increase the risk of cancer, and infertility as well as impotence, all three of which surely aren’t conditions that a reasonable person would want to willingly inflict upon themselves.

Sadly, these long-term effects are overlooked, simply because it’s difficult to see the accumulative effects one cigarette may have, especially since the consequences seem so miniscule for that one moment.

Bad for the planet

The same can be said about overlooking the harmful impact cigarettes and the tobacco industry as a whole has on the environment. However, with the cumulative effect of millions of cigarettes produced throughout the world, each day, the results have been devastating.

The United Nations (UN) states that 600,000,000 trees have been chopped down to make cigarettes, 84 million tonnes of carbon dioxide has been released to the air, contributing to climate change, and 22 billion litres of water has been used to make cigarettes. Those are statistics that cannot be overlooked.

That’s not mentioning the grave microplastic and tar poisoning that occurs each time a cigarette butt is discarded. Exposed to the rain and elements, the toxins trapped within the filter, and the microplastics of the filter seep out, into the ground poisoning the soil. Although one cigarette may seem miniscule, cigarette butts are some of the most carelessly discarded waste in the world, and a grave cause of pollution.

“The harmful impact of the tobacco industry on the environment is vast and growing, adding unnecessary pressure to our planet’s already scarce resource and fragile ecosystems,” the UN states.

Responsible for over 8 million deaths a year according to UN statistics, and irreversible damage to the environment, mostly on third world nations with few measures to prevent the destruction of the environment but where biodiversity usually is at its richest, it’s clear that the tobacco industry is in need of culling, and major control.

Too big to fail?

The sad truth is that the tobacco industry is too big to fail, and although the number of people who use tobacco products is definitely decreasing, it’s highly unlikely we will ever see a country or place completely free of tobacco in the near future. The industry is arguably too big to fail, providing valuable tax income to governments of countries.

Then there’s the income that flows into third world countries from the tobacco industry. Many hundreds of thousands of families are involved in the cultivation of tobacco around the world, especially in rural economies with very few other industries. With few alternative methods for such families to obtain an income or employment, they would be unwilling to give up tobacco farming, and by shutting down or culling tobacco cultivation, governments would have to find ways to ensure everyone is able to make an income without being part of the tobacco industry.

Then there are the consumers. Although tobacco users are dwindling in number, the industry continues to seek for methods to keep users hooked. And then there are the people who genuinely enjoy the use of tobacco. There will always be a few.

Smoke and mirrors

Of course, the tobacco industry has a large role to play in all this. Marketing teams constantly are on the lookout for creating new narratives that can neutralise the negative association that some might have for tobacco. It could be covering up the impact on people’s health and wellbeing through making smoking or cigarette brands a status symbol, covering up the impact on the environment through presenting ‘green’ projects and ‘greenwashing’ their products, “Through donations to sustainability initiatives and reporting on environmental ‘standards’ they often set themselves,” as stated by the UN.

It’s clear that the tobacco industry needs to clean up their act. And the same can be said about Sri Lanka. To learn more about what’s happening in our country in terms of the tobacco industry, Ceylon Today reached out to the Director – Human Development and Administration of the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) Sri Lanka, Sampath De Seram.

Missed opportunity

“Sri Lanka recently conducted a research among the population called GATS (Global Adult Tobacco Survey). Conducted as a collaborative effort by the CDC, NATA, WHO, the Health Ministry and the Department of Census and Statistics, in which we discovered that our total smoking rate is at a low level compared to the rest of the world.”

According to the numbers, tobacco usage among the people is steadily declining, which is a good thing. “But the profits gained by the industry have only continued to grow.

“If we calculate how fast the prices of essential items have increased in the recent past, you’d find that the price of rice has gone up by about 109 per cent, petrol by 250 per cent and so on, but the price of a cigarette this past year has only increased by eight per cent,” he revealed.

“If the Government really wanted to increase their tax income, one of the easiest measures that they could take while making the least impact on the livelihood of people would be to increase taxation on the tobacco industry. But why has the Government remained blind to this fact? Especially when regular citizens have been burdened so much by the existing prices of goods.

“Not even the new Prime Minister considered this option after coming into office. It’s difficult to argue that this has been overlooked, because taxation on tobacco is one of the easiest methods for the Government to increase tax income without placing a massive burden on the people.

“According to our own studies, more than 89 per cent of people would agree to a tax hike on cigarettes, and given the numbers, of course this would include a fair percentage of smokers as well, meaning the people are agreeing to this idea as well. But the Government has still made no move on this matter, which does arouse suspicions.

“One could argue that there isn’t a proper tax policy implemented on the tobacco industry in the country, and this has been the case for many years. We talk about one crow very often these days, but who knows if there are a lot of similar crows in there as well, who might be benefitting from turning a blind eye.

“If the tax income of the Government was increased to at least 10 rupees per cigarette, the Government could have earned at least Rs 23 million rupees according to our calculations,” he added.

He noted that this could be increased even further to twenty rupees, and even if implemented as such wouldn’t cause a collapse in the industry, and still be able to bring a strong income for the Government to use for the benefit of the people. And if the tax hike does impact consumer prices and lead to people purchasing fewer cigarettes, then it’s a clear win-win for everyone.”

Being aware

It’s clear that once again, awareness is the key. “On a global scale, the UN is the best resource for statistics on the tobacco industry, and has information readily available for everyone to read. As for Sri Lanka, the ADIC is committed to educating and informing the public in relation to information about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs,” he said.

There’s also tobaccounmasked.lk which is a great resource whom we have collaborated with often.

Once educated, Sampath assured that you too can contribute by participating World No Tobacco Day activities and sending a message out to the tobacco industry to, “Clean up their mess,” as stated by the UN. This can be done through social media as well as sharing the information you know, joining hands with like-minded individuals such as ADIC and other organisations that stand against the tobacco industry, and avoiding the use of tobacco products. And Sampath believes the youth have a massive part to play in this.

“From what we’ve seen in the past months, it’s clear that the youth of Sri Lanka is desiring change in the country, and this is one cause that can bring about a significant change for the better. We know the youth are creative, and once educated are eager to be involved in causes for good, I believe that they can help further this cause more than any of us could imagine.”

As such, this World No Tobacco Day, let us all make a statement to the world and share the message. The tobacco industry is bad for you and bad for the planet, and it’s time big tobacco companies start being accountable for it.

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage