The environmental cost of smoking

The cost of employees smoking to a business has been well documented over the years.

Surveys and estimates have stated that a smoker can cost his employer around US$1700 in productivity losses through smoke breaks and increased medical leave, not to mention an increase in medical expenses of roughly US$1,600 a year – along with higher insurance premiums.

And it’s not just the cost to business which employers should take into consideration. There is also the environmental impact of smoking.

World No Tobacco Day takes place annually around the world on the 31st May.

This year, as part of the Singapore Health Promotion Board National Smoking Control Campaign, I took part in “Live It Up Without Lighting Up”.

Youths, celebrity guests, and spontaneous converts took part in a flash mob as part of the event which started from three locations along Singapore’s Orchard Road. Swarming the notoriously busy shopping belt in red, orange, or blue t-shirts, participants donned headphones tuned into radio station 987FM following “Simon says” instructions to promote a tobacco-free lifestyle.

I was one of the youth ambassadors for the event, which broke into the Singapore Book of Records as the largest ever radio flash mob of over 1,200 bodies. My role as a youth ambassador is to provide perspective on the bigger environmental impact of smoking.

While we are all aware of the health, fitness, and financial commitment that mass tobacco consumption requires, not to mention as stated earlier, cost to business. It is also worth considering the environmental impact of smoking.

First, consider the global population of smokers.

Secondly, consider that if average smoker goes through about a pack a day, a pack of 10 or 20 a day that is 300 to 600 cigarettes a month.

Thirdly, consider that according to some statistics a tree is destroyed for every 300 cigarettes produced.

So let’s take a closer look at the footprint of those cigarettes:

  • It is estimated that 2,000 square kilometres of forests and woodlands are cut down each year because of tobacco farming.
  • Nearly 600 million trees are destroyed each year just to provide fuel to dry tobacco.
  • 10 to 20 million people could be fed if food crop is grown on lands used to grow tobacco.
  • It is estimated that up to sixteen applications of fertilisers may be required to tide over a three-month growing period. The exact effects of these chemicals are not known; they may get into the soil and find their way into rivers and food chains, or indirectly cause the genetic selection of pesticide-resistant mosquitoes or flies, making the control of diseases such as malaria much more difficult.
  • Cigarette butts are one of the highest if not the number one debris item collected worldwide.
  • According to the UN International Maritime Organization, 177 species of marine animals and 111 species of shorebirds are affected by tobacco litter causing unnecessary malnutrition, and death.
  • It is also estimated that it can take as long as 10 years for one cigarette butt to biodegrade.

The list could go on. My point is, that there are various things we can do, so called “low hanging fruit” which as an individual or as a business can lead to a more sustainable environment.

As a company, costs associated with CSR, going green or environmentally aware are often thought of as a hefty investment. However, in my opinion, by encouraging your employees to take on a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle, as a company you are not only plucking that low hanging fruit, you are also reaping the benefits of it with increased productivity and lowering other costs associated with your employees smoke free lifestyle.

And by the way, while it may cost a company in the region of US$3,500 a year to employ a smoker. From a consumer perspective, on average you save a few thousand dollars every year by not smoking… how about learning a language… taking up a sport.. Saving money for a rainy day or just a well needed vacation instead?

Rachel Kelly is a former broadcast journalist based in Singapore who is the latest addition to’s network of writers.

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