Can cigarette smoking ever be green?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
March 17 2009 6:48 AM

Dirty Butts

Can cigarette smoking ever be green?

I've been a pack-a-day smoker for years and have no intention of quitting. I know, I know, I'm polluting my body and the bodies of those around me—but what impact am I having on the environment at large? And is there any way to make my nasty habit more eco-friendly?

It's true: Your nicotine addiction affects the planet as well as your lungs. While there's nothing you can do to totally absolve your green guilt, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Tobacco is not a particularly green crop. Because it's very sensitive to disease, it requires a lot of pesticides; in the United States alone, tobacco farmers use 27 million pounds of the stuff every year. That may be a tiny proportion of the 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides used in the United States, but growing tobacco results in the use of more pesticide per acre than raising most other crops. (Potatoes, tomatoes, citrus, grapes, and apples use more.)

Cigarette. Click image to expand.
Can cigarette smoking ever be green?

Tobacco's contribution to deforestation also earns plenty of ire from environmentalists. The most common method of drying out tobacco leaves, called flue curing, requires an external heat source. In the developing world, where 85 percent of the world's tobacco is grown, that's usually a wood-burning fire. (In the United States, tobacco curing is more likely to be fueled by oil, coal, or liquid petroleum gas.) According to a comprehensive 1999 report published in the journal Tobacco Control, an estimated 494,211 acres of forest and woodland are cleared annually by tobacco farming, comprising about 1.7 percent of total forest-cover losses around the world. (You can rest assured that your vice is less taxing than that of your neighborhood cokehead: Tobacco farming clears only about one-third as much woodland as the cultivation of coca and opium poppies, according to CIA estimates.)

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Eco-minded addicts can mitigate some of these costs by switching to organically grown leaf, which at least addresses the pesticide issue. (Organic tobacco is still cured using external heat.) Many smokers swear by American Spirit, which currently produces the only cigarette made with USDA-certified organic tobacco. But while American Spirit's pesticide-free, sustainable farming efforts are laudable, plenty of environmentalists cry green-washing, given that its parent company is Reynolds American, a subsidiary of the giant British American Tobacco. The Green Lantern, however, would still recommend smoking organic if you're going to smoke at all.

Of course organic cigarettes aren't any better for your health than conventional brands—and they don't make for cleaner plumes. Most of the dangerous elements found in secondhand smoke come from combustion of the leaf itself, rather than from chemical additives. So a "natural" tobacco cigarette will still produce carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and sticky, carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Toxic nitrosamines formed during the curing process also remain an issue.

So what kind of air pollution does the world's nicotine craving produce? The average cigarette emits about 14 milligrams of fine particulate matter, the tiny little fragmentsthat can lodge in lungs and cause health problems. The global tobacco industry manufactures roughly 5.5 trillion cigarettes annually. Assuming that all those cancer sticks get consumed, smokers around the world spew out about 84,878 tons of fine particulate matter annually, or a little less than half of a year's worth of emissions from American on-road vehicles.

Sadly, there's not much you can do on the air-pollution front besides smoking less. Choosing a different kind of cigarette won't help: According to a recent University of Michigan study, "regular tar," "low tar," menthol, and nonmenthol cigarettes showed only minor differences when it came to emissions of both particulate matter and volatile organic compounds,such as benzene, a known carcinogen, and styrene, a potential carcinogen. R.J. Reynolds does produce a cigarettelike product called the Eclipse, in which charcoal is used to heat the tobacco, rather than burn it. The Eclipse produces 86 percent to 90 percent less particulate matter than a traditional cigarette, which makes it a better choice, environmentally speaking. But claims that it's a "safer" smoke overall are as yet unproven, and its maker is being sued over the matter.

You can take some responsibility when the time comes to toss your dirty butt. Cigarette trash is a major problem—a whopping 1.7 billion pounds of used smokes end up as litter worldwide.   Filters, which reduce the harshness of inhaled smoke, are almost always made from nonbiodegradable cellulose acetate—so you'd do well to switch to a nonfiltered variety. * (You can also roll your own cigs without filters—preferably with loose, organic tobacco.) And always make sure that your remnants end up in the trash, as opposed to the gutter or the toilet, where they can find their way into rivers and oceans. Cigarettes already make up 40 percent of the items picked up by volunteers along the world's coastlines. (You might carry an empty Altoid tin with you so that you won't be tempted to flick when you're finished.)

Finally, there's always the electronic cigarette, a battery-operated contraption that delivers a nicotine solution dissolved in water and propylene glycol, the stuff used in fog machines. Though public health officials stress a lack of research on the safety of these products, e-cigarettes do produce less trash and air pollution than the traditional variety. You may be exposing yourself to ridicule, but isn't that a small price to pay for your sins?

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Correction, March 31, 2009: The original sentence suggested that Parliament cigarattes might be a greener option because they use paper filters. Parliaments' recessed paper filters also include a cellulose actetate component. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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