World No Tobacco Day 2022: Tobacco a threat to our health and the environment

A combination of rising incomes, population growth, media-driven social trends, targeted advertisement by the tobacco industry and poor awareness about the dangers of smoking are some of the key drivers of the smoking prevalence in Sub Saharan Africa as described by the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa.

According to a report published in 2018, a total of 18 billion sticks of cigarettes are sold in Nigeria yearly. A 2019 report revealed that Nigeria produces an average of 19-21 billion cigarettes annually.

On May 31, the World Health Organization (WHO) and global public health champions will observe World No Tobacco Day with the theme “Tobacco: Threat to our environment” and the focus is on the many ways in which tobacco threatens the environment we live in. The 2022 global campaign aims to raise public awareness about the environmental impact of the entire tobacco cycle, from its cultivation, production, and distribution to the toxic waste it generates.

The damage from tobacco goes beyond air pollution. From start to finish, the tobacco life cycle is an overwhelmingly polluting and damaging process. The use of pesticides to grow tobacco plants as well as the use of large amounts of water to cultivate tobacco is damaging ecosystems and reducing climate resilience, and causing deforestation as 3.5 million hectares of land are destroyed each year.

It is estimated that tobacco cultivation is responsible for 5 percent of the world’s deforestation. Tobacco companies also contribute 84 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent to greenhouse gases. This increases the risk of climate change.

Nigeria’s National Tobacco Control Act was signed into law in 2015. But before then, Nigeria ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) in October 2005, making a commitment to implement measures aimed at reducing the demand for tobacco products. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is an international agreement developed in response to the international nature of the public health crisis caused by tobacco use and smoking.

The measures outlined in the WHO FCTC are intended to reduce both the supply of and the demand for tobacco. They include raising tobacco taxes; banning smoking in public places; banning advertisement of tobacco products and sales to minors; warning the public about the dangers of tobacco use; promoting alternative livelihoods for tobacco growers; and helping tobacco users to quit. Meeting WHO FCTC obligations requires the collaboration of many sectors beyond the health sector, including finance, trade, agriculture, environment, labour, development, communication, education and law enforcement.

Today, many people are aware of the health impacts of using tobacco and that is a victory for global health. But successful advocacy to reduce the health impacts of tobacco have not been matched by successes in challenging other impacts from tobacco, including on the environment, which can affect a country’s development.

Climate change is no longer a future threat; it is a real and present danger and every country must do it’s best to adopt practices that align with the global push for zero emissions by 2030.

Nigeria produces an average of 19-21 billion cigarettes annually, the Nigerian government must therefore take note of and address the possible impact this could have on the environment. Here are some recommendations made by the WHO on how countries can mitigate the impact of tobacco on the environment.

1. Make it mandatory for tobacco manufacturers to supply timely and regular information and data on the environmental and health risks of tobacco throughout production and distribution.

2. Develop strategies to free tobacco farmers, and their children, from unsafe agricultural and labour-related practices involving exposure to tobacco pesticides or other chemicals.

3. Strengthen regulation of tobacco farming to prevent deforestation and land degradation.

4. Extend regulations and tax policy on tobacco products and sales to eliminate single-use filters – including any biodegradable varieties – to reduce post-consumption waste.

5. Engage litigation, legislative, and other economic interventions to recover the costs of tobacco industry misconduct and environmental damage.

6. Innovate, improve and enforce new and existing environmental regulations and agreements that may apply to tobacco manufacturing, transport, consumption and post-consumption waste.

7. Address the important, unmet need for surveillance, research and exchange of information regarding the accumulation of third-hand tobacco smoke constituents in indoor and outdoor environments.

Tobacco use leads to a massive loss of life, killing over 8 million people globally, each year. It also contributes to the global burden and threat of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, among others.

Beyond its impact on health, the harms of tobacco use also have severe consequences on all levels and sectors of society, from the global, regional and national levels down to the community, family and individual levels. It is therefore important that governments and all stakeholders at all levels, make the required commitment and effort to ensure that their citizens lead healthier lives, free from the harms of tobacco use and its environmental effects.

Oke and Oranezi are programme assistants at Nigeria Health Watch

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