11 July 2024

Smoking and second-hand smoking not only cause cancer and other respiratory diseases but tobacco use also has a negative impact on the environment, both of which place a significant burden on public health and the economy.

“Tobacco is killing our planet. Every stage of the production and use of a cigarette – from farming to manufacturing and from selling to smoking and littering contributes significantly to environmental pollution,” said Dr. Olivia Nieveras of World Health Organization (WHO) Thailand. She was speaking at a hybrid seminar held last week to mark World No Tobacco Day on May 31, which this year highlights the detrimental impacts of tobacco on the environment.

Smoking costs Thailand over 350 billion baht per year in health-care expenses and lost productivity or around 2.1% of the country’s GDP.

Assoc Prof Naowarut Charoenca of Mahidol University’s Faculty of Public Health said tobacco kills the planet through deforestation, massive use of water, pollution, and littering.

Tobacco farming requires intensive use of resources, she added. Each year, about 600 million trees are cut down and more than 22 billion liters of water are used globally to make cigarettes. Tobacco cultivation also uses a range of harmful chemicals which affects the health of farmers who are involved in production.

Tobacco production emits nearly 84 million metric tons of carbon dioxide globally each year. And 4.5 trillion cigarette butts, which are the most littered items on the planet, are thrown away annually, according to her.

Cigarette butts ruin beaches and poison oceans

Thailand’s once-pristine beaches are polluted by a large number of cigarette butts. It will potentially affect the tourism industry, which is one of the country’s main sources of revenue if the problem left unsolved.

The butts are a common eyesore on beaches. Small but deadly, these plastic-based filters can also contaminate oceans when they find their way into the sea and kill marine life.

A recent survey on marine debris management by the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR), which is responsible for protecting the Thai coastal resources, found over 100,000 cigarette butts being tossed on leading tourist beaches.

“We found more cigarette butts than any other types of waste on our beaches,” the DMCR deputy director Apichai Ekvanakun said, adding that of the 4.5 trillion butts thrown away globally each year, Thailand alone is responsible for 100 million of them.

Cigarette litter is toxic trash, Apichai noted. The filters contain toxins and chemicals including nicotine and arsenic that is used in rat poison as well as carcinogens that can taint the oceans when they dissolve and release the pollutants.

“The butts are toxic to all living organisms and small marine life that come into contact with them,” the deputy director said.

Cigarette butts are non-biodegradable and can stay in the environment for more than 2 years and up to 12 years, he added.

In response to this, the department has initiated a smoke-free and zero-waste beach campaign to restrict smoking and littering of used cigarettes and waste. Authorities have imposed a smoking ban in public areas including beaches.

Violators would face a maximum fine of up to 100,000 baht or imprisonment for up to one year or both, Apichai said.

At the initial stage, the law has been implemented on 24 popular holiday beaches in 15 provinces including Chon Buri’s Bang Saen Beach, Phuket’s Patong Beach, and Prachuap Khiri Khan’s Hua Hin Beach.

“We shouldn’t turn our beaches into ashtrays. To keep everything clean, beachgoers please smoke in the designated smoking area and stub out your used cigarettes or cigars in the ashtrays provided,” he said, adding that the department is looking into extending the anti-smoking ban to cover other beaches in order to provide a cleaner, safer and healthier environment for beachgoers.

It’s not just Thailand. In California, smoking is also banned on all state beaches and in state parks. Barcelona in Spain is banning smoking on all its beaches, making it the first country in Europe to do so.

Smoking pollutes the air at beaches

In addition to cigarette litter, some Thai beaches are reported to have a high level of secondhand smoke exposure.

A study on the exposure to secondhand smoke on two Thai popular beaches found that the particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) hit unsafe levels. It was carried out by Assoc Prof Nipapun Kungskulniti of Mahidol University’s Faculty of Public Health and her colleagues.

“We wanted to assess the levels of secondhand smoke around the beach loungers and find out how smoking affects the air quality. We used instruments to measure an airborne pollutant or PM2.5 that is emitted downwind from areas smoking beachgoers used,” Nipapun said.

The study showed that the average PM 2.5 levels on the beaches were at 260 and 504 micrograms (mcg) per cubic meter. The levels reached their peaks at 716 and 1,335 mcg per cubic meter from active cigarette users – 27 times higher than a recommended safety limit.

According to the Pollution Control Department, the so-called safe level of air is 50 mcg per cubic meter.

“Children were playing on the beach when we collected the data for our study. They could breathe in secondhand smoke that can be harmful to them,” the researcher said.

Secondhand smoke that comes from burning tobacco is detrimental to health. When people accidentally inhale the fumes while sitting or standing next to a smoker outdoors in public areas including restaurants, parks, and beaches, it can irritate their eyes, give them a headache, and even make them feel sick.

Beyond that, exposure to passive smoking can increase serious health risks, according to the Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Foundation Thailand. In adults, it’s linked to lung problems, heart and cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory diseases. In kids, it simply makes them cough, sneeze, causes respiratory infections, triggers asthma attacks or makes asthma symptoms worse.

Nipapun supports the DMCR’s smoking-free zone regulation, noting it not only helps improve the air quality on beaches but also saves marine life and even human life.

“Birds, fish, turtles ingest the butts, mistaking them for food. The toxic chemicals they release can harm sea animals, enter the food chain and then affect humans.” Nipapun said.

Smoking kills us

Smoking kills both smokers and non-smokers. In 2017, it killed more than 70,000 people in Thailand who died from lung cancer, emphysema, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Each year, nearly 7,000 non-smokers die from cancers, heart disease, and chronic respiratory diseases from exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke, says WHO Thailand.

According to the international health organization, tobacco smoke has about 4,000 chemicals, at least 250 of which are known to be harmful. It also contains carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides, which are greenhouse gases.

“Over 2 million smokers in Thailand have high blood pressure or diabetes, according to the most recent survey. Smoking, along with high blood pressure or diabetes, is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and kidney deterioration,” ASH Thailand president Dr. Prakit Vathesatogkit said.

He urged smokers who want to quit smoking to get help and advice from a doctor which can increase their chances of kicking the habit for good. He also advised smokers to make their houses and cars smoke-free to help them quit smoking.

“Stop smoking and create a smoke-free home for a healthier, a happy family and make the earth green again.” the doctor said.

By Veena Thoopkrajae with additional report by Sukhumaporn Laiyok