Today the 31 May 2022 is World No Tobacco Day 2022, another opportunity to shed light on the tobacco burden.
Commemorated under the theme, Tobacco: threat to our environment, this year’s World No Tobacco Day offers an opportunity for all Zambians to come together and claim their right to a healthy environment.
Over 80% of the 1.3 billion tobacco users worldwide live in low- and middle-income countries including Zambia, where the burden of tobacco-related illness and death is heaviest, and unfortunately Zambia cannot cope with such a burden.
As such, in addition to the challenge posed by tobacco use in achieving the sustainable development goal (SDG) 3 (health and well-being), tobacco is also threatening Zambia’s potential to achieve SDG 14 (life below water) and SDG 15 (life on land) through its impacts on the environment.
World No Tobacco Day 2022 raises awareness about the environmental impact of tobacco in relation to its cultivation, production, distribution, and post-consumption waste. Article 18 of the WHO Framework Convention of Tobacco Control (FCTC) requires parties to protect the environment and human health in respect of tobacco cultivation and transformation.
Tobacco cultivation entails an intense quantity of fertilizers and pesticides compared to many other crops.
These chemicals are eventually washed out of the tobacco fields and end up contaminating our waterways, including groundwater, rivers, and seas. Worse, exposure to these agrochemicals and pesticides can cause serious health problems and even death.
Furthermore, the clearing of forests for development of new tobacco fields and curing contributes to deforestation, one of the main contributors of Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and climate change.
Globally about 11.4 million metric tonnes of wood are required annually for tobacco curing.
This problem undoubtedly accelerate deforestation in tobacco growing countries including Zambia.
This damage to the environment also incorporates the manufacturing of cigarettes and other tobacco products.
These activities result in the release of greenhouse gases and other toxic waste polluting the air.
The emissions associated with the transportation of finished products also contribute to air pollution, further compounding the problem.
These points bring to light the urgency with which the government must support alternative livelihoods to tobacco farming especially in tobacco growing Provinces where farmers continue to dwell in poverty.
Tobacco processing and transformation requires enormous quantities of water and generate a substantial amount of wastewater.
The wastewater contains a range of toxins, that negative impact quality life of the citizens.
Moreover, plastics and chemicals used in cigarette filters eventually breakdown and leach into our water sources as millions of cigarettes are thrown away each year. In fact, cigarette butts are one of the most littered items on earth.
Also, two-thirds of every smoked cigarette are discarded into the ground and between 340 and 680 million kilograms of waste tobacco product is littered around the world each year.
These end up on the streets and water systems making the tobacco burden to the environment even more complex.
The manufacturing and packaging of traditional tobacco products are highly resource-intensive, and this is also true for emerging products like electronic nicotine delivery systems, (electronic cigarettes).
They are made up of disposable materials, including batteries, which if not treated and disposed of properly can have serious effects on our environment.
Very aware of the damages it causes the environment, the tobacco industry has resorted to self-reporting selective data on the environmental harms, diverting public interest from the true impact of its production activities.
The WHO FCTC has set a framework or guidelines that allows parties to adopt comprehensive policies and effective measures required to fulfil their obligation on Articles 17 and 18.
These include the establishment of innovative mechanisms for the development of sustainable alternative livelihoods for tobacco growers and workers, development programmes connected with the promotion of food security, and feasible markets that cover all aspects of the alternatives to tobacco growing, including economic viability and environmental protection.
Consistent with Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC and its guidelines, it is also important that the development and implementation of policies and programmes for promoting alternative livelihoods are protected from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.
We must act now to ensure that our environment is not completely ruined by the tobacco production. The Government must ensure effective implementation of the provisions of Articles 17 and 18 of the WHO FCTC and hold the tobacco industry accountable for its environmental damages.
Government must not fall for the corporate social responsibility initiatives undertaken by the tobacco industry as part of efforts to green wash its image.
The tobacco industry cannot be treated like any other type of industry because not only deprive human rights including the right to good health and a clean environment, it has significant control over its product design and supply chains that unfortunately, create an enormous burden to the environment.
Zambian government must make the tobacco industry pay for this environmentally burden through adequate taxation and government must also support viable alternatives to tobacco farming in order to limit the environment impact of the practice, and the tobacco industry must be kept away from attempts to shape government policy.
Corporate social responsibility initiatives which create an opportunity for the industry to divert attention from the true impact of its devastating actions must also be shunned.
Zambia deserves a clean and healthy environment, and can together attain that milestone.
Tobacco Free Association of Zambia Executive Director and
Zambian Alliance for Tobacco Control President