The Environmental impact of tobacco production

R. MacKenzie, B. Freeman, M. H. Winstanley

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In 2012, 7.5 million tonnes of tobacco leaf were grown in more than 120 countries. Two-thirds (64.8%) of this production was produced by three countries, China (42.3%), Brazil (11.4%), and India (11.1%). Like smoking prevalence, tobacco production has shifted from high-income to low and middle-income countries. Between and 1961 and 2006, global production of tobacco leaf rose from 57% to 90% in low and middle-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia. For many farmers, particularly, but not exclusively, in low and middle-income countries, tobacco is considered an important source of income. A number of observers, however, have described how industry control of tobacco growing and the leaf trade has resulted in cycles of indebtedness, particularly among farmers contracted directly by leading cigarette manufacturers. Further, short-term, unreliable income is often offset by damage caused by tobacco cultivation to the local environment, costs of fertilisers and pesticides, dangerous working conditions and illness experienced by farm workers, food insecurity and child labour (see Section 10.15). For governments, tobacco growing provides income through trade and taxation, at least in the short term. From the tobacco industry’s perspective, production costs in low and middle-income countries are lower, and markets are often less regulated. Since the late 1970s, concerns have been raised regarding the environmental impacts of tobacco growing. Tobacco leaf cultivation is labour-intensive, requires significant pest and disease control, use of fertilisers, and extensive water supply. While some tobacco leaf is air, or sun-dried, the majority of cultivated leaf, particularly in low and middle-income countries is flue- cured in barns using heat produced by burning wood, coal or gas. Manufacturing cigarettes from tobacco crops generates a further range of hazardous chemical by-products, including ammonia, nicotine hydrochloric acid and toluene. In high-income countries, appropriate disposal of these chemicals is strictly regulated; the same may not be true in developing countries where tobacco manufacturing is increasingly concentrated. In response to growing concerns around the environmental impacts of leaf growing, leading tobacco companies have taken steps to address these issues, generally as part of broader corporate social responsibility (CSR) agendas. Analysis of industry initiatives, however, demonstrates that they have been aimed at deflecting attention from environmental impacts of tobacco cultivation issues, and at influencing public and policy-maker attitudes toward tobacco companies.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTobacco in Australia
Subtitle of host publicationfacts and issues
EditorsMichelle Scollo, Margaret Winstanley
Place of PublicationMelbourne
PublisherCancer Council Victoria
Number of pages6
ISBN (Print)9780947283766
Publication statusPublished - 2016


Cite this

MacKenzie, R., Freeman, B., & Winstanley, M. H. (2016). The Environmental impact of tobacco production. In M. Scollo, & M. Winstanley (Eds.), Tobacco in Australia: facts and issues Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria.