World No Tobacco Day 2022: Realizing environmental and public health co-benefits

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Empty bottles and cigarette butts on the beach
Empty bottles and cigarette butts on the beach. Photo copyright : Shutterstock

Our meditation on World No Tobacco Day 2022 is guided by a sober observation in the World Bank Group (WBG) Climate Change Action Plan 2021-2025 that the collective responses to climate change, poverty, and inequality are defining choices of our age.  More so now because of the devastating combined impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis, wars and population displacement, and food shortages and high prices.

Ecological degradation, rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and natural disasters are negatively impacting the lives, health conditions, and well-being of people.  The encroachment of human civilization on the environment and on the microbial species that inhabit our environment, is exposing us to viruses and other microbes that otherwise we would not have encountered and is contributing to the emergence new infectious diseases such as COVID-19 (strikingly, approximately 75 percent of emerging pathogens are zoonotic).  

As the international community gears up to support countries to respond to the ongoing crisis and build back, there is an urgent need to integrate climate and development strategies to deliver green, resilient, and inclusive development.  This is key for reducing poverty and boosting shared prosperity globally and for minimizing the risk of pandemics and other societal catastrophes that cause widespread social, economic, and political hardship.

Negative Impact of Tobacco on the Environment

While the devastating public health consequences of tobacco use are widely understood and documented, few people appreciate that tobacco also has profoundly negative environmental impacts as shown by existing evidence. For example, cigarette butts are the world’s most frequently littered item, with estimates that more than five trillion butts are discarded each year, ending up on beaches and in waterways. Tobacco filters – made of cellulose acetate - are the number one ocean plastic, more numerous than plastic bottles, plastic bags, or plastic straws. Butts pollute water ways where they dissipate into microplastics and enter the food chain. They also leach a dangerous suite of chemicals that place water quality at risk. Tobacco farming is highly water intensive, contributes to biodiversity loss, and causes 5 percent of deforestation in low- and middle-income countries, due to land clearing to grow the crops and procure wood for tobacco curing. When it comes to carbon emissions generated, tobacco has a similar footprint to entire countries. These staggering statistics are the impact of just a handful of companies.

The harmful impact of the tobacco industry on the environment is vast and places mounting unnecessary pressure on our planet’s already scarce resources and fragile ecosystems.  This compounds the social and economic impact of the 8 million deaths that occur each year due to tobacco-attributable diseases, a number that dwarfs the tragic 6.28 million COVID-19 deaths to date that have been recorded since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

The same tobacco industry that promotes e-cigarettes as harm reduction in high-income countries, derives the bulk of its profits by selling cigarettes in lower and middle-income countries. Indeed, while the cultural dominance of cigarettes, a deadly product, has waned and consumption has fallen significantly in high-income countries over the past decades due to the adoption of stringent regulatory and tax measures and to growing awareness of the population about the health risks of tobacco use, the tobacco industry continues to thrive by expanding into new markets in emerging economies to promote the use of cigarettes, entrapping new generations of consumers in the web of tobacco addiction.     

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No Tobacco Day
© Sai Harini Chunduri. Used with the permission of Sai Harini Chunduri. Further permission required for reuse

What to Do?

Thanks to the global fervour generated in the lead-up to and during the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) held in Glasgow in 2021, ‘Net Zero’ went from being a boutique concept to one emblazoned across business newspapers around the world. Financial institutions, businesses, and governments signed up proudly in droves. Laggards had nowhere to hide. Once the fervour subsided, sustainable finance teams turned to one another to draft strategies to match the ambitious commitment. And regulatory agencies such as the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are now proposing more disclosure requirements to give investors more information on environmental, social and corporate governance vehicles.  So where to start?

As observed by William D. Nordhaus, the Nobel Laurate-pioneer in environmental economics, solving the world’s biggest problems—from climate catastrophe and pandemics to wildfires and corporate malfeasance—requires, more than anything else, coming up with new ways to manage the powerful interactions that surround us. 

Tobacco-free investment is a way for investors to contribute to save millions of lives each decade, support climate action, reduce poverty, and boost development investment needed to construct a ‘new normal’ in the post-pandemic era. With the support of the Governments of France and Australia, the Tobacco-Free Finance Pledge was launched on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in 2018, in collaboration with multiple UN agencies including the United Nations’ Environment Programme Finance Initiative.

The pledge calls on mainstream financial actors - across banking, insurance, pension plans and asset managers – to integrate tobacco exclusions into investment, lending, and insurance policies. There are now almost 200 signatories – major leading financial institutions, from more than twenty countries, with combined assets of more than US$16 trillion.

The pledge demonstrates leadership and authenticity when it comes to sustainable finance and is an excellent place to begin when designing ‘Net Zero’ frameworks. While the pledge focuses on tobacco, it intersects with and complements many other important environmental initiatives, relating to ocean health, biodiversity, and deforestation, as well as to global public health initiatives such as the universal health coverage agenda.

Moving forward, as David Malpass, the President of the World Bank Group, recently observed, “more than two years into the COVID crisis, it is devastatingly clear that broad-based participation in global public goods is necessary, whether for climate change, COVID-19 vaccines, refugees, or future pandemic prevention and preparedness.” 

Indeed, massive and complex challenges such as climate change require global solidarity and action, and there is no place for tobacco in a ‘Net Zero’ world.

Authors

Patricio V. Marquez

Senior Associate, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health

Bronwyn King

Founder, CEO and Director of Tobacco Free Portfolios

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