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Viewing Tobacco Control in China Through an Environmental Perspective

April 25, 2011
Viewing Tobacco Control in China Through an Environmental Perspective

A Chinese Zhongnanhai Cigarette, Named after the Beijing Political Complex, to Communicate the Power and Class Exuded by the Cigarettes. Photo by Tim Quijano.

This post originally appeared on Greening the Beige.

As a male foreigner who has conducted the management of government relations in China, I have been offered a whole lot of cigarettes. With this in mind, I was very surprised to hear the government’s announcement that it will ban smoking in indoor public places beginning next month, with some notable exceptions, one of which being government offices. This post will describe a few environmental consequences which will be reduced by lower rates of smoking in China, assuming this regulation is at least marginally enforced.
What makes it more acceptable to throw a cigarette butt on the ground than any other piece of trash? Littering of cigarette butts is, perhaps, the most pervasive of tobacco control problems. Wherever you go, you will find butts in the cracks of the sidewalk, as the butts with their non-biodegradable nature, will last almost forever. Many of the casually discarded cigarette butts eventually flow into natural waterways, at which point the toxins such as tar leach out into the soil and water, harming the local organisms. Fish are particularly sensitive to irresponsibly discarded cigarettes, often mistaking the floating butts for food, ingesting them and being poisoned by the chemicals they contain.
The production of tobacco leaves also encourages significant deforestation, particularly in developing tropical states. The need for fuel to feed the fire or flue-curing process to dry tobacco leaves, has resulted in significant deforestation and carbon emissions. Furthermore, growing the high-nicotine tobacco that is demanded by today’s tobacco market depletes the soil of its natural nutrients quickly, thus many tobacco growers are encouraged to move to virgin, or previously undomesticated, plots of land. This rewards a continuous movement into increasingly deep virgin forest, thus tobacco production results in about 5% of total deforestation worldwide.
The environmental consequences of smoking cigarettes, thus, are quite remarkable. As with all numbers related to China, the numbers related to smoking in China are overwhelming one in three smokers in the world is Chinese thus, the Chinese authorities could considerably reduce the impact of recreational smoking on the global environment.

Sources:
Smith, E., McDaniel, P. Covering their butts: responses to the cigarette litter problem. Tobacco Control. 1999;8:18-28. Available online here.
Geist, H. Global assessment of deforestation related to tobacco farming. Tobacco Control. 1999;8:18-28. Available online here.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2011 23:39

    As I’m sure you’ve seen, this new law seems to have had absolutely no impact on indoor smoking. As a smoker, I’m not overly crushed by this – I don’t relish the idea of taking the elevator down 15 floors every time I want a cigarette at work – though it would be nice on the weekends not to come home reeking of smoke.

    It seems like the whole thing has just been a publicity move. They don’t really want people to stop smoking indoors – think how much revenue they’d lose on cigarettes. Besides, this is one more little technical rule that they can trip businesses up on if they ever need an excuse to shut one down. I wonder if they’d feel differently if they had to bear more of the medical expenses of people dying from lung cancer…

    Sorry, that had nothing to do with the environment.

    • Tim Quijano permalink*
      May 19, 2011 10:01

      I see what you mean about not wanting to take a hike every time you want to smoke, but perhaps you wouldn’t have been so likely to start (restart?) if you weren’t in a place where it is so prevalent.
      But, yes, I’m not too surprised that it hasn’t done too much in restricting indoor smoking. I think smoking preferences will change more with the generation than anything else. There seem to be a lot of younger urban Chinese that aren’t as interested in smoking as their dads.

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