For decades, tobacco production and use has wrecked harm and damage on health and economies to the tune of more than US$1 trillion annually in health care costs and lost productivity. Tobacco kills more than 8 million people globally and its use can exacerbate poverty by increasing health care costs, reducing incomes, and decreasing productivity, as well as diverting limited family resources away from basic needs.
Today, its impact on the environment must be added to the cost for its catastrophic outcomes globally which is attracting international attention. Apart from the air pollution caused by the trillions of cigarettes smoked globally each year, massive quantities of rich forests are destroyed through deforestation to plant tobacco, and soils damaged from curing tobacco activities.
Now, another environmental consequence is gaining traction globally, and rightly so – the level of plastic pollution caused by tobacco, and its resulting impact. This concern has led to an active involvement of tobacco pollution in discussions to forge an international legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution by the end of 2024, following a historic resolution taken on 2 March 2022, at the close of the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) in Nairobi.
A 2019 article published by The Conversation notes that cigarette butts are the most littered item on the planet, and of the estimated 5.6 trillion cigarettes are smoked each year, two-thirds are improperly discarded. That is about 4.5 trillion butts each year. The article also states that since the 1980s, cigarette butts have accounted for 30% to 40% of all litter found in coastal and urban litter clean-ups.
The cigarette filter fraud
Transnational tobacco companies use filters made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, in cigarettes as a design feature to prevent particles of tobacco from entering the mouth during smoking. However filtered cigarettes were marketed to reassure smokers that the tobacco industry was taking action to make cigarettes “safer”, and to dissuade quitting after evidence demonstrated causal links between smoking and lung cancer emerged in the 1950s (Figure 1). Over the decades this marketing strategy has helped the industry to maximize profits at the detriment of public health.
Figure 1: Cigarette adverts promoting filters from the 1950s/1960s
Contrary to the industry’s deception, filters in cigarette do not offer any health benefits and filtered cigarettes are not less harmful than unfiltered cigarettes, for either smokers or passive smokers. Instead, they caused smokers to inhale carcinogens more deeply into the lungs, and minute particles in tobacco smoke to be increasingly deposited in small airways thereby triggering an increase in lung cancer among smokers. Cigarette filters are non-biodegradable and contain multiple toxic substances which infiltrate the environment.
In Africa, they are disposed of just anywhere – on streets, sidewalks, and other public areas. A significant portion of them end up in rivers, beaches, and oceans, and because they do not biodegrade, they end up poisoning marine life.
Tobacco: A major pollution addition to a dire situation in Africa
Every year African lives are added to the 8 million lives lost worldwide. The WHO notes that about 22,000 women die every year from tobacco-related diseases in Africa, and tobacco-attributable deaths are projected to double in in Africa and low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), between 2002 and 2030.
While Africa still has the lowest smoking rate in the world, compared to other continents, its growth in smoking uptake is among the highest. The continent is even predicted to be “the world’s ashtray if big tobacco can get its way.”
But cigarette filters are not the only problematic plastics emanating from tobacco products.
Novel and emerging tobacco products like e-cigarettes which are inundating the continent today, are also generating plastic waste. Elements like pods and cartridges contain not only plastic but also electronic and chemical waste. And just like cigarette butts, they too are generally disposed of randomly, and end up generating toxic emissions, that potentially pollute the environment.
And if we consider the increasing influx of e-cigarettes and similar novel tobacco products, it would be expected that a high amount of cigarettes and novel products are consumed in Africa. With limited technological competence to properly dispose of these cigarette butts, and other tobacco product remnants, a colossal amount of pollution will be expected in the continent.
The International Plastics Treaty: a contributing solution to tobacco pollution?
The international plastics treaty aims to deal with the root causes of plastic pollution, not just the symptoms. Critically, this includes measures considering the entire lifecycle of plastics, from its production to product design, to waste management, enabling opportunities to design out waste.
The treaty is expected to ensure that global controls are developed that address visible plastic pollution and protect human health and the environment from the invisible toxic chemicals in plastics. It must prioritize protecting biodiversity, the climate, and human wellbeing, drive a just transition to reuse-centered systems, and put the needs of people and the planet before corporate profits.
The international plastics treaty marks the beginning of another commendable global effort to render the earth cleaner and safer and presents an opportunity to further strengthen efforts to protect the world from the devasting consequences of tobacco.
Africa can make a difference in the international plastics treaty
In Africa, the tobacco industry has often found ways to whitewash its image through corporate social responsibility initiatives and gaining access to senior policy makers. The industry has a long history of lobbying against regulations and taxes in the continent. However, the International Plastics Treaty can help counteract this influence on the continent. By adopting principles such as polluter pays, the treaty will help create a global framework for regulating the disposal of cigarette waste and imposing taxes on the tobacco industry. The direct impact of such actions on Africa will be a significant shift in the cost of environmental damage caused by the tobacco industry from ordinary people to the industry itself.
Making the environment cleaner and safer
Amongst the principal discussions in the International Negotiation Conference (INC) for the plastics treaty is a ban or strict regulation of all single-use plastics whose numerous downsides have already been enumerated. Cigarette filters, which fall under this category are a massive problem in Africa, and banning their use will render the continent considerably cleaner, with much healthier oceans. Cigarette butts leak deadly toxins into the environment and Africa, which is already bearing the weight of the tobacco burden cannot afford further health complications from improper disposal of these butts.
An opportunity to hold the tobacco industry accountable for the damages it causes
Inspired by Article 6 of the global treaty, the WHO FCTC, African countries are joining a global trend whereby taxes on tobacco products are increased, and part of the revenue generated from these taxes is used to operate a framework to support public health and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. A similar model should be used for the International Plastics Treaty with the revenue earmarked to support initiatives to protect the environment from the impact of the tobacco industry.
The tobacco industry has spent decades using its political clout to protect its business interests, support policymakers to do its bidding, and block lawmakers’ and public health officials’ efforts to seek an end to the tobacco epidemic. These helped to shield the industry from being held accountable for the damages it caused.
While countries like Rwanda and Ghana are actively engaged and playing a leadership role in the negotiations, it is important for all African countries participating in the INC-2 on Plastic Pollution, which will take place from 29 May to 2 June 2023 in Paris, to raise their voices amidst the global call to effectively hold the tobacco industry accountable for the harm it inflicts on the environment. Being a heavily targeted continent by the tobacco industry, it is in Africa’s interest to support the treaty.
By Leonce Sessou and Mary Assunta
Leonce Sessou is the Executive Secretary of the African Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA), is a network of civil society organizations (CSOs) dedicated to preventing a tobacco epidemic Africa. Headquartered in Lomé – Togo, and with membership in 39 countries of the WHO Afro region, ATCA works to limit the detrimental impact of tobacco on the health and well-being of Africans.
Mary Assunta is Head of Global Research and Advocacy at Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC), a Partner in STOP, the global tobacco industry watchdog. She is the principal author of the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index and a Luther Terry Award (2003) recipient for outstanding leadership in tobacco control, representing low- and middle-income countries on many platforms to counter and debunk tobacco industry tactics. She has more than 20 years of experience in international tobacco control advocacy. She has a doctorate in public health from the University of Sydney – School of Public Health, where she serves as an adjunct senior lecturer.
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