David Thorpe opens up a second front attacking nicotine addiction...
Forgive me. You probably are fed up with hearing about smoking and its controversies; there’s been plenty of articles and talk about it recently. Smokers being banned from here, there and everywhere. Oppressed minority. The health and mortality statistics. But I wrote this when my father died of lung cancer having smoked all his life, and now I’m going to publish it.
If you’re a smoker, you probably know all the health arguments for giving up. Short of taking you into the future to actually see the suffering you’re causing yourself at the other end of your life, which unfortunately is not yet possible, none of those arguments has yet convinced you to quit. (Why don’t they show schoolkids videos of people having radiotherapy, lungs removed, coughing up blood, etc. to put them off?) But if you’re interested in matters ecological and ethical, and if you’re a smoker too, that’s the contradiction I want to explore.
Have you noticedthe number of environmentalists who smoke? Usually roll-ups. Now I’ve not done any market research, but from personal experience I know that these same people will make conscious and deliberate choices, sometimes involving extra expense and serious effort, to buy ethically sound or low-impact products: fair trade coffee, organic veg., low-energy lightbulbs, meat-free food, boycotting multinationals, and so on. But when it comes to smoking there’s a total blind spot. Ask them a question (and I have) like “why can’t you buy organic tobacco?” and “do you know what’s really in that thing?” they act like the thought never crossed their minds.
So here’s what I’ve managed to piece together. It’s not much: the industry is notoriously secretive. Don’t wonder why.
What’s in a fag?
When you take a drag, besides the nicotine and tar you are inhaling some 4,000 toxic chemicals. Some of these are naturally present, some derive from the pesticides and fertilisers used in the growing, and others are added during the processing. Unlike other substances you put in your mouth, they’re exempt from the requirement to describe the contents on the packaging: funny, that. But they include:
- arsenic and cyanide (classic poisons)
- formaldehyde (used to preserve bodies after death)
- lead (causes brain damage, weight loss, stunts growth)
- shellac (used in wood varnish)
- xylene (used to be used in marker pens until discovered to be carcinogenic)
- cadmium (highly toxic metal causing liver, brain and kidney damage being phased out in batteries)
- phosphorous (in many foods - and rat poison)
- ammonia (turns nicotine into a gas rendering it more swiftly absorbable - but do you want a disinfectant in your bloodstream?)
- propylene glycol (to moisten the 30% reconstituted tobacco dust present in the average cancer stick)
- acetone (a solvent used in nail polish remover)
- butane (the sniffing of which is reputedly more brain-damaging than crack cocaine)
- bleached beeswax (reason unknown)
- turpentine (inhaling too much of which brings on seizures, vertigo and worse)
- methoprene (due to its function as an insecticide, sprayed on tobacco crops, and one of many similar chemicals)
Of course, you are also inhaling carbon monoxide, also appearing at car exhausts, where it is sometimes tapped for the purpose of suicide.
This gas, and carbon dioxide, also produced when tobacco is burnt, is a greenhouse gas; of course, enough tobacco is replanted to compensate by the emission of oxygen from photosynthesis, but what of the other pollutant effects of smoking?
Every day some 15 billion coffin nails are smoked: that’s a lot of empty packets, not to mention nub-ends.
Where do they all go? Many of them end up in the street, littering the countryside, and are certainly not recycled. Most of their constituents are of course biodegradable, although visually intrusive before they disappear, but not so the metal foil wrapping inside the packs. The cellophane outer wrapping also takes a little longer to decompose. Think of all the natural resources and energy that goes into just making the packs and transporting the tobacco and its products around the world.
Talk about food miles: no local-grown box-system golden virginia is possible I’m afraid. In fact, in the States at least, it is illegal to use the natural, fresh leaves, known as khat in Yemen and Western Africa, so you can’t grow it yourself. Such is the power to sway governments of the seven multinational companies who form the cartel that controls this global drug pushing empire.
Almost three quarters of tobacco is grown in developing countries as a cash crop. 4.1 million hectares of land is squandered in this way: if anyone tells you there isn’t enough good agricultural land to feed the world, let alone the impoverished populations of some African countries like Kenya where tobacco is grown for foreign exchange, quote them this statistic.
Much needed food crops could be grown on this land whose soil is instead ruined. For example Zimbabwe’s growing tobacco export industry has taken 3% or 72,000 hectares of arable land away from food growing, and yet the country still relies on international food aid. That land, if converted to food growing, could feed up to 17 million people a year.
Tobacco consumes soil nutrients, particularly phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium, faster than many other plants, and so the soil needs to be enriched by a cocktail of fertilisers, including organophosphates, which leach out and pollute the surrounding water table. The same applies to pesticides, which are often applied at paranoiac levels.
It doesn’t stop there. Once harvested, tobacco has to be ‘cured’, which means heating it for a week so it dries and ferments. Vast amounts of wood are used for this. Save the Rainforests reports that to cure one kilo of tobacco leaf uses between four and 13 kilos of wood. In Tanzania, a 1989 survey found that 12% of the trees cut there were being used for this purpose. Tanzania is a country which has lost most of its natural forest.
The industry also uses labour, which is often needed at times of harvest and planting, that should ideally go towards food crop planting and harvesting.
It is now well known that there is a relationship between economic health and environmental health. Poor people are not able to look after the environment. Besides, ethically, workers should be paid fairly for their labour.
But farm workers on tobacco plantations are some of the poorest paid. Even in the US growers earn less than a fifth of what they earnt 40 years ago, as a proportion of the price of a pack of coffin nails. A 1995 survey of 529 US tobacco farmers revealed that three quarters favoured a 5% increase in federal tax on tobacco if the money went to help them diversify into other crops and to promote public health. Farm workers in developing countries are frequently paid little more than starvation wages. Food crops can secure much greater revenue for farmers: for example by switching from tobacco to corn, African farmers could boost their income by a third.
With smoking declining in the West, the pushers are furiously encouraging addiction in the developing world. More than half the population of China smokes. The Dominican Republic is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a 1990 per capita income of just $830 a year. But people spend four times more on fags than they do on food.
Throughout the world’s poorest regions, tobacco advertising, like that for Coca Cola and Pepsi, is ubiquitous. The poor are ignorant and need their solace, so they’re suckers for the pictures of affluent and sexy white people with those smoke sticks in their mouths. And the money goes straight out of their local and national economies back to the countries which host the drug pushing companies: for the top seven that’s the USA (33% market share) Japan (5%) South Africa (3%), South Korea (2%) and Turkey (1.6%).
That’s how the rich countries drain money from the poor ones. And the US government is aggressive in its promotion of Philip Morris, British-American Tobacco and R J Reynolds into new territories, in ways that are sometimes reminiscent of Britain’s opium wars against the Chinese in the last century.
The governments of the victim countries do not mind at the moment as they harvest millions from the taxes. But wait till the health bills start rolling in, and the lost production hours from smoking-related illness.
For, while you could, macabrely, argue that the most efficient way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet is to cease to exist, and that by smoking you are probably going to do that an average of 13 years earlier than you might otherwise, the fact is that the health bill and other damage to the economy caused by your illness significantly mitigates against this dubious benefit. In the developed world it is estimated that lung cancer treatment costs $18,000 per year of life gained. Anti-smoking campaigns cost between $20-40 per year of life gained.
In fact, smoking and the tobacco industry can be seen as an illuminating example and metaphor for the way we screw up each other and the planet through our addiction to unnecessary products and damaging production and distribution processes.
So next time you light up, remember, it’s not just you you’re damaging. There’s a life cycle here, and even this incomplete analysis demonstrates that on environmental and ethical grounds, to be consistent with your other lifestyle choices - give up now.