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When it comes to sustainability, the tobacco industry should stop blowing smoke

The tobacco industry has so many environmental violations—on top of its health impacts—that it’s the worst kind greenwashing.

When Jack Bowles, the Chief Executive of British American Tobacco (BAT), introduced the company’s new growth strategy recently, he proclaimed that BAT was transitioning to being a business “where sustainability … is front and center in all that we do.”

The company’s sustainability report trumpeted BAT’s investment of USD $57.8 million in community projects and charitable donations over the past three years, but failed to mention this is less than one-tenth of one percent of the company’s USD $91.9 billion revenue over the same period. Or that it pales in comparison to the costs the tobacco industry imposes on environmental and human health.

Like many economic sectors, the tobacco industry responds to public crises, natural disasters and even global pandemics by seizing the opportunity to show how they’re helping.

However, promoting their contributions to society is how tobacco companies distract from the harm their products cause on a daily basis—not just the well-documented health impacts, but the industry’s environmental impact as well.

The government in India reported that tobacco caused more soil erosion than any other crop. Tobacco farms in Malawi caused 70 per cent of the country’s deforestation in 2008 alone. More than one-third of tobacco workers in Malaysia have shown symptoms of pesticide poisoning.

However, promoting their contributions to society is how tobacco companies distract from the harm their products cause on a daily basis—not just the well-documented health impacts, but the industry’s environmental impact as well.

The impact doesn’t stop with combustible cigarettes; increasing waste from e-cigarettes is presenting its own environmental challenges.

Tobacco companies tout beach clean-ups, but these barely cover up the 4.5 trillion cigarette butts that litter the planet each year.

Cigarette litter has been shown to be acutely toxic to marine and freshwater fish, and the microplastics in butts persist in the environment with new studies showing that littered butts continue to emit poisonous fumes and hinder plant growth.

Other corporate social responsibility (CSR) tactics include funding environmental and disaster-relief organisations, especially in low- and middle-income countries where industry practices include paying poverty wages and utilising child labor. Yet, the industry claims ever more insistently that sustainability is at the heart of its operations.

Often, private-sector standards that “certify” sustainability are voluntary. These include the Carbon Disclosure Project, a non-profit index that rates companies for climate change, water and forest use; and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which ranks companies by sustainability performance

Voluntary guidelines often mean that companies can arbitrarily set environmental goals and disclose only those practices that portray them in the best light. When suitable for their sustainability story, companies can replace old units of measurement with new ones that obscure the actual environmental impact.

For example, in 2018 some tobacco companies used a new measure they called “intensity,” which makes it appear that environmental impact is decreasing because environmental harm per product consumed is lower. However, with increases in the total volume of product consumed, the overall environmental impact is actually larger.

Companies also make a show of supporting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The first three goals are: no poverty, zero hunger and good health. The health goal wisely precludes the tobacco industry from influencing health policy, through inclusion of the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

While claiming to align themselves with the SDGs, tobacco companies work to circumvent tobacco regulation. In the Philippines, an industry front group sued the city of Balanga in 2017 for trying to pass a “smoke-free” ordinance, arguing that it cost Philip Morris International (PMI) USD $420,000 a month in lost sales.

Meanwhile, PMI’s sustainability report for that same year declared it was “taking decisive action [on the SDGs] where we have the greatest impact,” pointing to SDG3 on good health and well-being—notably leaving out mention of Target 3a, which incorporates the FCTC into the SDGs.

Several steps can be taken to limit corporate greenwashing of its environmental and societal harms:

  • Establish more uniform requirements for environmental impact disclosures among national governments, especially those in the same geographic region or sharing similar growing climates. This would prevent companies from simply moving their operations to avoid scrutiny and regulation.
  • Ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, including the advertising of CSR programs, in accordance with the FCTC.
  • Make producers responsible for the physical and financial costs of post-consumer waste disposal.

Tobacco company profits are wrangled from the forests, the fields, the water and the grossly undercompensated labor of workers that too often include children. No amount of greenwashing can change this reality.

Tobacco companies should stop blowing smoke and bear the costs for restoring what they have destroyed.

Nancy Karreman is Research Assistant, Tobacco Tactics at University of Bath and a Partner in Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products (STOP).

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