Saturday April 20, 2024

‘Tobacco industry responsible for 20pc of deforestation in Pakistan’

By Shahina Maqbool
May 31, 2022

Islamabad:About 600 million trees worldwide fall victim to tobacco farming every year. They are cut down to make way for tobacco crops, burned during the tobacco curing process, and used for the construction of curing barns. Trees are nature’s way of absorbing carbon dioxide, so this loss contributes to climate change. It is also a major contributory factor in weakening the soil and accelerating soil erosion.

Professor of Public Health at the Health Services Academy and the Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Medical University, Dr. Minhaj us Siraj, shared these views Monday during an exclusive interaction on the eve of World No Tobacco Day (WNTD), which is annually observed on May 31 to draw attention to the harmful effects of tobacco. Dr. Minhaj was awarded the Tobacco Control Award by the Chief Commissioner of Islamabad on Monday for pioneering the Tobacco Smoke-Free Islamabad Model.

Sharing Pakistan-specific data, Dr. Minhaj said that according to the Pakistan Tobacco Board, there are 35,000 barns in the country for roasting/curing tobacco. Each barn consumes 1,000 kilograms of firewood in one roasting cycle of 8-10 days for flue-curing, and each barn runs an average of 8-10 cycles per year. Hence, out of 12 million tons of firewood annually produced in Pakistan, 2.8 million tons, or 20 per cent is exhausted in tobacco barns, leading to massive deforestation and environmental pollution.

Dr. Minhaj said forest resources are also used for packing tobacco including tobacco leaves and cigarettes. “Around 15 packs of cigarettes are produced from the bark of a single tree; 90 billion cigarettes produced annually in Pakistan are packed in 4.5 billion packs of 20 cigarettes each. As such, the tobacco industry annually consumes the barks of 30 million trees for the packaging of its poisonous product,” he pointed out.

Pakistan has a forest cover of 4.5 percent as against the desired 15 percent. “We are losing more and more wood and forest to the tobacco industry. Moreover, tobacco is a sensitive plant requiring pesticides and other chemicals for growth, thereby further depleting the soil quality and toxifying local water systems,” he concluded, urging both the government and the people of Pakistan to act now.

Dr. Minhaj said Pakistan needs to implement stringent regulations to minimize the environmental harm caused by tobacco companies. While it is for the government to pressurize these companies into offering compensation to those affected by their actions based on the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle applied to climate change, many steps can additionally be taken at the individual level to protect communities, wildlife, and the environment.

Referring to the environmental impact of the menace, Dr. Minhaj pointed out that despite a decline in smoking rates, we see cigarette butts scattered almost everywhere, making them the most littered item on earth. More than 5 trillion cigarettes are produced every year, creating an enormous amount of waste. “Cigarettes make up more than one-third—nearly 38 percent—of all collected litter. About 75 percent of smokers report disposing of cigarettes on the ground or out of a car. Cities spend between $3-16 million on cigarette clean-up,” he shared.

About the toxicity of cigarettes, Dr. Minhaj said, they contain over 7,000 chemicals, such as arsenic (used to kill rats) and formaldehyde (used to preserve dead animals, and humans). Littered cigarette butts leach toxic chemicals into the environment and can contaminate waterways. Moreover, the plastic fibers in cigarettes are non-biodegradable.

“We must act on tobacco now to protect our planet from further poisoning, which is also the theme for this year’s WNTD. Take photos of smoking-related litter or other pollution and share these on social media with the hashtag #tobaccofreePakistan. You can also share your stories or worries about the environmental damage caused by the tobacco industry with the hashtag #tobaccofreePakistan,” recommended Dr. Minhaj.

Giving the call for action, Dr. Minhaj said, “We need to give tobacco users an extra reason to quit. We need to support policy action around the ban on single-use plastics which include cigarette butts, smokeless tobacco pouches, and electronic waste. And we also need to raise awareness of the tobacco industry’s greenwashing tactics.”