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WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.

Environmental Impact: Cigarettes vs. E-Cigarettes

Very little has been said about the environmental impact of using e-cigarettes instead of traditional cigarettes. 

Environmental Impact of Using Traditional Cigarettes

When we think about traditional cigarettes, a few words come to mind. Nicotine, addiction, health, tar, and lungs are all topics that we associate with cigarettes. But what about the environmental factor? 

Tobacco products are expected to generate a global revenue of $941 billion in 20231Statista, ‘Tobacco Products – Worldwide,’ [Online]. Available: https://www.statista.com/outlook/cmo/tobacco-products/worldwide and experience an annual growth rate of 2.55% from 2023 to 2028. Despite the negative health and environmental impact of traditional cigarettes, this industry is going nowhere. 

The Cigarette Supply Chain 

Agriculture – Tobacco farmers plant, harvest, and cure the plants. 

Primary processing – Leaf processors sort, stem, redry, and blend the tobacco plants. They also add flavors and dyes. 

Secondary processing – Manufacturers add filters, flavor capsules, paper, and packaging. 

Logistics – Several teams work to transport tobacco products along the supply chain. 

Retail & marketing – Retailers and marketers promote and sell the product. 

Production of Traditional Cigarettes 

Traditional cigarettes are at the epicenter of an environmental catastrophe. The production of tobacco, the main component of cigarettes that contains the addictive compound nicotine, has a devastating impact on the ecosystem. 

Here are the biggest global producers of tobacco in 20212Statista, ‘Leading countries in tobacco production worldwide in 2020,’ [Online]. Available: https://www.statista.com/statistics/261173/leading-countries-in-tobacco-production/, in 1,000 metric tons.

  • China, mainland – 2,127.6  
  • India – 757.51 
  • Brazil – 744.16
  • Indonesia – 237.11 
  • United States – 216.8
  • Pakistan – 167.87
  • Zimbabwe – 162.37
  • Malawi – 105.48
  • Argentina – 102.07
  • Mozambique – 93.13

The majority of global tobacco production happens in developing countries, but this has only become a reality in the last decade or so. According to one paper, manufacturers “shifted from high-income countries to developing countries, particularly those in Africa.”3Teh-wei Hu and Anita H. Lee, ‘Tobacco Control and Tobacco Farming in African Countries,’ NLM, 2015 Feb; 36(1): 41–51. [Online]. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4412848/ 

Africa is not the biggest overall producer of tobacco, but it is notable because Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Mozambique were among the biggest producers in 2021. In Africa, tobacco farming is marketed as a vehicle for economic prosperity, and any plans to implement tobacco controls are portrayed as an attempt to unfairly target disadvantaged farmers. 

In “Tobacco Production and Trade in Africa4World Health Organization, ‘Status of tobacco production and trade in Africa,’ 12 February 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240020009”, the World Health Organization (WHO) highlights statistics that show just how much tobacco farming has infiltrated the economy in Africa. 

  • From 2012-2018, the global area under tobacco cultivation decreased by 15.66%. In Africa, it increased by 3.4% in the same time frame. 
  • From 2012-2018, the global leaf production decreased by 13.9%. In Africa, it increased by 10.6% in the same time frame. 
  • In 2018, global leaf production was 6.3 Million tons. In Africa, it was 722,187 tons, which accounts for 11.4% of the global production. 

Main Tobacco Farming Countries in Africa 

As of 2020, these countries were the top tobacco leaf producers in Africa5World Health Organization, ‘Key Observations of Tobacco Production and Trade in Africa,’ [Online]. Available: https://www.who.int/initiatives/tobacco-free-farms/key-observations-of-tobacco-production-and-trade-in-africa

  • Zimbabwe – 33.3% 
  • Mozambique – 17.2% 
  • Malawi – 16.8% 
  • Tanzania – 8.4% 
  • Uganda – 5.1%

Tobacco Production in Africa: the Consequences

The overall export of tobacco from African countries increased by approximately 47% from 2000 to 20116Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, ‘FAO STATISTICAL YEARBOOK 2014 Africa Food and Agriculture,’ 2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.fao.org/3/i3620e/i3620e.pdf. In 2011, tobacco leaf was the top agricultural export for Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. It was the second agricultural export for Tanzania, and the third for Zambia. 

Here are two of the most important environmental impacts of tobacco farming in Africa. 

Increase in Deforestation 

Violet Makoto, spokesperson for the FCZ, said that tobacco farming is becoming a serious threat to the environment in Africa. “We are looking at the amount of fuel wood that is required in the production of tobacco,” she said. “That is causing a lot of deforestation in the country.”7Euronews Green, ‘Big tobacco is sending Zimbabwe’s forests up in smoke. What can small-scale farmers do?’ Aug. 14, 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.euronews.com/green/2022/08/14/big-tobacco-is-sending-zimbabwes-forests-up-in-smoke-what-can-small-scale-farmers-do

One study examined the ecological threat posed by tobacco farming in Urambo, a district in one of the most prominent global producers of tobacco, Tanzania.  It found that tobacco planting accounts for 3% of annual deforestation8Mwita M. Mangora, ‘Ecological impact of tobacco farming in miombo woodlands of Urambo District, Tanzania,’ African Journal of Ecology, 13 January 2006. [Online]. Available: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2028.2005.00603.x in the area, and that stacking wood for curing accounts for another 3% of deforestation per season. 

Woodlands Lose Their Function

The same researchers also analyzed woodlands in the Urambo District. They put 39 Modified-Whittacket plots in tobacco fallow lands to assess the ecological performance of soil that had been used to plant tobacco. 

Researchers concluded that tobacco farming had no negative impact on floristic composition and stem density, but the change in vegetation structure highlights the potential loss of function of the woodlands9Mwita M. Mangora, ‘Ecological impact of tobacco farming in miombo woodlands of Urambo District, Tanzania,’ African Journal of Ecology, 13 January 2006. [Online]. Available: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2028.2005.00603.x

Environmental Impact of Global Tobacco Production 

Returning to the world stage, we see that tobacco production has a negative impact on the environment on a global scale. 

Here are a few of the most shocking facts about the global impact of tobacco production. 

Deforestation 

According to one study from 1994, it takes roughly one tree to produce 15 packs of cigarettes10Simon Chapman, ‘Tobacco and Deforestation in the Developing World,’ Tobacco Control by BMJ, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 191-193 (3 pages). [Online]. Available: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20207042. Modern researchers struggle to estimate the exact amount of deforestation that has occurred as a result of tobacco farming. One source from 2016 concludes that tobacco production accounts for 4% of global deforestation11Lee, K., Carrillo Botero, N. & Novotny, T. ‘Manage and mitigate punitive regulatory measures, enhance the corporate image, influence public policy’: industry efforts to shape understanding of tobacco-attributable deforestation. Global Health 12, 55 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12992-016-0192-6.

Low or Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) are even more impacted by tobacco farming. In some LMICs, tobacco farming is responsible for 18-30% of deforestation. Deforestation has a direct influence on other environmental concerns. Without trees, communities are more susceptible to flooding, there is more carbon monoxide (CO2) in the air, and soil erodes.  

CO2 Emissions

As mentioned above, tobacco farming accounts for 0.2% of global carbon monoxide emissions. Deforestation is the main cause, and the curing process is the runner-up. 

To cure tobacco, farmers often hang the plant to dry in a well-ventilated space. During the process, tobacco leaves emit CO2. 

The curing process can last anywhere from four to eight weeks, so it is no surprise that many farmers accelerate the time frame by using curing heaters. These heaters use coal or wood, which adds to the ever-growing amount of CO2 that the process produces. 

Pesticides

Tobacco crops require vast amounts of pesticides. From 1994-1998, farmers in the U.S. applied almost 27 million pounds of pesticides to tobacco crops12P. A. McDaniel, G. Solomon, and R. E. Malone, “The Tobacco Industry and Pesticide Regulations: Case Studies from Tobacco Industry Archives,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 113, no. 12, pp. 1659–1665, Dec. 2005, doi: https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.7452. In 2003, the U.S. Government Accountability Office created a list of crops that used the most pesticides per acre, and tobacco ranked sixth. 

Pesticides include herbicides, fungicides, suckersides, and insecticides. They are proven to increase DNA damage in animals and humans13V. F. S. Kahl et al., “Occupational Exposure to Pesticides in Tobacco Fields: The Integrated Evaluation of Nutritional Intake and Susceptibility on Genomic and Epigenetic Instability,” Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, vol. 2018, p. e7017423, Jun. 2018, doi: https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/7017423. When tobacco farmers use pesticides, dangerous chemicals are released into the air, water sources, and soil. 

Global Footprint of Tobacco in 2014

In 2018, researchers produced one of the most seminal studies on the impact of tobacco. It assessed the global footprint of tobacco14M. Zafeiridou, N. S. Hopkinson, and N. Voulvoulis, “Cigarette Smoking: An Assessment of Tobacco’s Global Environmental Footprint Across Its Entire Supply Chain,” Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 52, no. 15, pp. 8087–8094, Jul. 2018, doi: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.8b01533 in 2014. 

Researchers found that: 

  • The six trillion cigarettes manufactured each year require 5.3 million hectares of land and more than 22 billion tonnes of water.
  • The six trillion cigarettes were manufactured in nearly 500 factories across 125 countries. 
  • To create six trillion cigarettes, farmers had to cultivate 32.4 Million tonnes of green tobacco.
  • This production effort produced 25 megatons of solid waste, 55 megatons of wastewater, and around 84 megatons of CO2 emissions, which accounts for approximately 0.2% of the global total.  

Quick Statistics On Annual Emissions   

The same researchers15M. Zafeiridou, N. S. Hopkinson, and N. Voulvoulis, “Cigarette Smoking: An Assessment of Tobacco’s Global Environmental Footprint Across Its Entire Supply Chain,” Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 52, no. 15, pp. 8087–8094, Jul. 2018, doi: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.8b01533 estimated the overall annual emissions, fossil fuels, and water loss from tobacco.

Carbon footprint – 84 Million tonnes, comparable to countries such as Peru

Fossil fuels – 21 Million tonnes, comparable to the total primary energy consumption of New Zealand

Water – 22,220 Million tonnes, 2.5 times more than the annual supply to the UK 

Distribution of Traditional Cigarettes 

Cigarettes have a negative impact on the environment at every stage of the supply chain. Once the agricultural stage is finished, the distribution stage begins and creates a whole host of different dilemmas. 

In 2019, these countries supplied the most cigarettes to the U.S. 

  • 6,574,400 Kg from Mexico
  • 4,927,040 Kg from Canada
  • 3,215,700 Kg from Korea

Cigarettes are often transported from country to country, with the manufacturer being thousands of miles from the end user. In 2021, transportation accounted for the largest share (29%) of all greenhouse gas emissions by sector in the U.S.16EPA, “Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” US EPA, Aug. 27, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions, followed by electricity (25%), industry (23%), agriculture (10%), commercial (7%), and residential (6%).

Environmental Impact of Using E-Cigarettes

E-cigarettes are marketed as the “healthier” alternative to traditional cigarettes, but the environmental impact is largely ignored. 

The e-cigarette market is projected to generate a revenue of $24.6 billion in 202317“E-Cigarettes – Worldwide | Statista Market Forecast,” Statista. https://www.statista.com/outlook/cmo/tobacco-products/e-cigarettes/worldwide and experience an annual growth rate of 3.61% from 2023 to 2028. The projected revenue of tobacco products ($941 billion) dwarfs e-cigarettes, but this technological alternative is predicted higher rates of annual growth. 

The E-Cigarette Supply Chain

Mining – Miners drill for lithium to go into lithium-ion batteries and other minerals like tungsten, tin, and gold to go into microprocessors. 

Nicotine extraction – Lab workers extract nicotine from tobacco leaves and dispose of the plant. 

Hardware manufacturing – Manufacturers create pods, cartridges, batteries, and other hardware essentials. 

Primary processing – Manufacturers add flavorings to the e-liquids. 

Secondary processing – Manufacturers assemble the organic elements with the hardware elements.

Logistics – E-cigarettes are transported via planes, trains, and boats. 

Retail & marketing – Retailers and marketers promote and sell the product. 

Production of E-Cigarettes 

The largest producer of e-cigarettes is China, which is unsurprising given that e-cigarettes were created by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik in 2003. 

Here are a few statistics about China’s involvement in the e-cigarette industry. 

The e-cigarette supply chain is far more complicated than the supply chain for cigarettes. Vapes only contain nicotine, which is the main stimulant in tobacco. By extracting the nicotine and leaving the tobacco, manufacturers can offer the “high” associated with tobacco without any of the known carcinogens. 

However, manufacturers are just replacing known chemicals with lesser-known chemicals and materials that necessitate far more invasive environmental processes. One of the biggest environmental issues in the vape industry is lithium mining, which is very rarely discussed.

Lithium Mining 

Lithium is necessary for the lithium-ion batteries commonly found in e-cigarettes. Lithium batteries hold charge for much longer than the alternative, and there are no comparable substitutes. The global lithium market is at $8.20 billion21“Lithium Market Size & Share, Trends Report, 2024 – 2030,” www.grandviewresearch.com. https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/lithium-market#:~:text=Lithium%20Market%20Size%20%26%20Trends, and it shows no signs of stopping. 

Most lithium extractions happen in salt-dense areas, such as the Lithium Triangle in South America, which holds more than half the world’s supply of metal. To reach the metal, miners drill holes in salt flats and use pumps to bring salt brine to the surface. They evaporate the salt and use the resulting lithium to make all sorts of everyday products. 

Although mining lithium produces less emissions than mining fossil fuels, the process of extracting lithium still has a detrimental impact on the environment. 

Here are two of the main issues. 

  • Requires massive amounts of water – To extract one ton of lithium, manufacturers use 500,000 liters of water. In Salar de Atacama in Chile, lithium mining has used 65% of the region’s water22A. Katwala, “The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction,” Wired, Aug. 05, 2018. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-batteries-environment-impact
  • Pollutes water sources – The process of mining lithium pumps unknown chemicals into water sources, which has the potential to poison local wildlife. In Salar de Hombre Muerto in Argentina, locals say that chemicals from lithium mining have corrupted streams used by the community. 

Lithium is just one snapshot of the problems associated with sourcing materials and ingredients for e-liquids. Manufacturers also have to source vegetable glycerin (VG), propylene glycol (PG), and, of course, nicotine.  

Benefits of Synthetic Nicotine 

Synthetic nicotine, or tobacco-free nicotine, is created in a lab. It mimics the nicotine alkaloid that would otherwise have to be extracted from tobacco plants. 

Synthetic nicotine can almost eliminate the unwanted environmental effects of growing, cultivating, and harvesting tobacco that we mentioned earlier. There is no need for 5.3 million hectares of land, 25 megatons of solid waste, 55 megatons of wastewater, and 84 megatons of CO2 emissions. 

Of course, growing synthetic nicotine does require laboratories and materials, but they are a drop in the ocean compared to the impact of using organic, tobacco-derived nicotine. 

Adoption of synthetic nicotine is still in the early stages, with only 2.13% (238 out of 11,161) products in the UK being marketed as containing synthetic nicotine23S. Ma, Z. Qiu, J. Chen, and C. Shang, “Synthetic nicotine e-liquids sold in US online vape shops,” Preventive Medicine Reports, vol. 33, pp. 102222–102222, Jun. 2023, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2023.102222 in 2021.

Distribution of E-Cigarettes 

Shenzhen, China, is the vaping capital of the world. Popular e-cigarette brands like Smok, Innokin, and Elf Bar are all manufactured in this hub. The density of this vaping capital means that distribution methods are no doubt streamlined, but regardless, e-cigarettes have to travel thousands of miles before they reach their intended destinations. 

In 2021, more than half of Shenzhen’s e-cigarettes went to the United States24“China: export value of e-cigarettes by destination 2022,” Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1384645/china-export-value-of-e-cigarettes-by-destination/#:~:text=In%202021%2C%20China%20exported%20approximately. This journey spans 7,878 miles. 

The shipping industry is responsible for approximately 940 million tons of CO2 per year, which equates to around 2.5% of global emissions25“Reduce Your Air Cargo CO2 Emissions,” www.cargoai.co. https://www.cargoai.co/blog/how-to-reduce-air-cargo-co2-emissions/. Air cargo accounts for 2% of global carbon emissions. No studies have found the amount of air cargo emissions that e-cigarettes are responsible for, but we can assume that the figures paint a bleak portrait of the environment.

Waste from Cigarettes vs. E-Cigarettes

The lifecycle of a cigarette does not end when it has been lit. 

“Tobacco products are the most littered item on the planet, containing over 7,000 toxic chemicals,”26World Health Organization, “WHO raises alarm on tobacco industry environmental impact,” www.who.int, May 31, 2022. https://www.who.int/news/item/31-05-2022-who-raises-alarm-on-tobacco-industry-environmental-impact said Dr Ruediger Krech, Director of Health Promotion at WHO, “which leach into our environment when discarded.”

Here are a couple of statistics about the last stage of the lifecycle of a cigarette. 

Littered cigarette butts leach toxic chemicals out into the environment, which makes each cigarette a potential hazard. They contaminate water, poison local wildlife, and create extra work for local communities. This problem costs the global economy millions of dollars each year. 

Cigarettes might be the most littered product in the world, but e-cigarettes come with a long list of extra problems. Vapes fall under the classification of “e-waste”, a term that refers to technological waste requiring special handling, sorting, and disposal methods. 

Some e-cigarettes are designed to be disposable, but even those models usually have a component or two that cannot be recycled. Batteries and replaceable pods are particularly problematic. The latter typically contain a small amount of nicotine, meaning they are classified as biohazardous29M. J. Krause and T. G. Townsend, “Hazardous waste status of discarded electronic cigarettes,” Waste Management, vol. 39, pp. 57–62, May 2015, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2015.02.005

In 2020, Truth Initiative surveyed young people to find out how they dispose of vapes30“A toxic, plastic problem: E-cigarette waste and the environment,” truthinitiative.org. https://truthinitiative.org/research-resources/harmful-effects-tobacco/toxic-plastic-problem-e-cigarette-waste-and-environment.

Of those surveyed: 

  • 51% put them in the trash
  • 17% put them in recycling bins that are designed for e-cigarette waste 
  • 10% threw them on the ground

The same survey also found that 49.1% of the young people surveyed do not know what to do with e-cigarette pods and disposables. These statistics, which are reflected in other robust studies, suggest that the e-cigarette industry could do more to inform users about the best recycling practices. 

Both cigarettes and e-cigarettes share a common problem. Like traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes that are not disposed of properly run the risk of leaching. Vapes can leach heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and bromines31Y. H. Hendlin, “Alert: Public Health Implications of Electronic Cigarette Waste,” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 108, no. 11, pp. 1489–1490, Nov. 2018, doi: https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2018.304699, as well as battery acid and nicotine. In comparison, e-cigarettes have a much greater chance of harming the environment than cigarettes. But, by quantity, cigarettes are still the most littered product, so the impact is more widespread. 

Cigarette Smoke vs. E-Cigarette Vapor

There are approximately 600 ingredients in cigarettes. When burned, cigarettes create more than 7,000 chemicals, one of them being CO2. Throughout its entire lifecycle, a cigarette can produce up to 14 grams of CO2. 

Cigarette vapor contains residual nicotine, which can infiltrate water sources, natural habitats, and soil. Humans can even absorb nicotine through their skin, which is one of the reasons why secondhand smoke is frowned upon. 

Likewise, e-cigarette vapor contains nicotine residue, so it has the potential to cause harm once it has been released into the atmosphere. However, e-cigarettes do not contain all the known carcinogens in cigarettes. For this reason, we can assume that e-cigarette vapor has less of a detrimental impact on the environment. 

Ultimately, very little research has been conducted into the impact of vapor from traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes. 

Final Thoughts

Tobacco has become a staple in the economies of disadvantaged countries that have abundant natural resources. Tobacco farming is such a central part of agriculture and economics in Africa (and other LMICs) that it is not likely to stop. Companies, stakeholders, and people who have vested interests in big tobacco have little incentive to implement more sustainable practices. 

Despite the far-reaching health impacts associated with tobacco, and to a lesser extent nicotine, little research has been done into the overarching impact of both these substances. The distressing mortality statistics associated with traditional cigarettes have cast a shadow over the structures that govern the industry and have, in turn, allowed the e-cigarette industry to emerge as a “better” alternative, with little thought as to the extra, and in some cases, worse, environmental impact. 

Synthetic nicotine provides a welcome reprieve from the overwhelmingly negative environmental factors associated with e-cigarettes, but only momentarily. This imitation substance has barely gained legs and, given that the unsustainable supply chain is already in place, we would not be surprised to see synthetic nicotine fade away in the coming years.

Sources

Viki Howlett
Viki Howlett
Viki Howlett, a skilled writer with a decade of vaping experience, enriches our website with engaging, well-researched articles, offering readers valuable insights and trustworthy reviews on vaping products and trends.
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