The WHO has many medical awareness days but few are as potent or as preventable as tobacco-related deaths. Tobacco is a great cash crop, but there the benefit ends. It is so much of a threat to human health and the environment that the WHO has dedicated this special to encourage people to go without tobacco for the day with the intention of quitting for good.
The Health Damage
We have known about the dangers of tobacco smoke for decades. It is linked to a number of conditions including several types of cancer: lung, liver, kidney, oesophageal, laryngeal and mouth cancer amongst others. It also causes emphysema (one of the most common illnesses related to smoking tobacco). It’s also a causative factor in Mesothelioma but does not directly cause it. Smokers exposed to environments with high levels of asbestos (as many factory workers were prior to the 1970s and still are in some parts of the world) are at much higher risk of this disease too.
Tobacco smoke has also been linked to increased risk of stroke, aortic aneurysm, diabetes, erectile dysfunction in men, ectopic pregnancy and higher risk of stillbirth in women and many other conditions.
The Environmental Damage
A more recent phenomenon is the problems in growing tobacco. It’s a tropical plant although it can grow in some warmer subtropical areas too. The biggest producers are in the developing world where vast tracts of forest are cleared to make way for the plant. Unlike other luxury crops such as coffee and cacao (for chocolate), tobacco is not shade grown in copses or under tree cover. As with any other uniform crop not grown to a system of ecological sustainability, this reduces biodiversity. Tobacco growth requires more in the way of pesticides than other types of crop, some of which may be harmful to native insects, and removes a shocking amount of nutrients from the soil which exhausts much quicker than other types of crop.
None of the above says anything about the environmental damage caused by tobacco treatment and processing or the substances released into the atmosphere of millions of people smoking cigarettes.
The Poverty Trap
While most luxury goods can be produced ethically (Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance certification), there is still no such system for tobacco production. The idea has been touted for at least a decade but it has never come to pass. Just last year, Human Rights Watch reported that 8-year-old children work in tobacco farms in Indonesia. The industry has been criticised for years for low pay and poor conditions as well as child labour.
Around the world, people with the lowest amount of disposal income and areas with the highest levels of unemployment also happen to be the heaviest smokers. The WHO reports that in the poorest households around the world, more than 10% of the income goes on tobacco. It’s linked not just to the health issues mentioned above, but a continuing cycle of poverty, low education and malnutrition – mostly in countries where there is no provision to help people who want to give up smoking.
This Year’s Theme
Bringing all of the above elements together, it’s perhaps apt that this year’s theme is “A Threat To Development”. The slogan simply says “Say No To Tobacco: Protect Health, Reduce Poverty, Promote Development”. By ending tobacco farming and giving over the land to other types of farming, it will be good for the farmers, the economy, the health and the environment of us all.
The WHO will petition industry, health chiefs and governments to do more to help people stop smoking and to reduce the amount of land given over to tobacco production. But the organisation also wants you involved too. If you are a smoker, give up for one day with the aim of giving up for good for your health and the planet.