The Carbon Footprint of Cigarettes

The true face of smoking is disease, death and horror - not the glamour and sophistication the pushers in the tobacco industry try to portray.
— David Byrne

One of our followers of our Twitter Account asked us about the carbon footprint of cigarettes.  An interesting question that sent us digging through our database and resources to try to answer.  Though not a common item to think about when it comes to your carbon footprint, the case of cigarettes is a great example of how all of our choices as individuals contributes to our personal and our collective carbon footprint. 

Some who might ask this question may think about the smoke we see rising from the cigarette itself as a non-contributor to the product's carbon footprint - after all tobacco plants, like all other plants, consume carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to grow.  So that means a small portion of that will be sequestered into the soil through the plant's roots while the balance of that CO2 will be released back into the atmosphere at the end of the plant's short life when it is smoked.  That would lead us to believe that the smoke itself is just borrowed CO2 being released back into the atmosphere as a part of the fast carbon cycle.  Alas, there is not just tobacco in that puff.  In the case of cigarettes, the plant's CO2 is joined with a very long list of additional chemical compounds infused into a cigarette...over 4,000 of them in fact.   These compounds contribute not only to the health risks of cigarette smoke but also to the carbon footprint of consuming cigarettes as well as the overall environmental impact of the industry.

 Photo by Derecke Sanches via Flickr

Photo by Derecke Sanches via Flickr

 Photo by DigaoSPBR via Flickr

Photo by DigaoSPBR via Flickr

The full source of a cigarette's carbon footprint is the same as for everything we choose to consume as individuals: the use of fossil fuels in the harvesting, manufacturing, packaging, storage, shipping, and distribution of the product.   

For the first portion, the harvest and manufacture of a cigarette, a study of a Pakistani cigarette manufacturer, these aspects of cigarette production added up to 0.6 g of greenhouse gas emissions for every cigarette produced - equal to 1/2 the weight of the cigarette itself.  This number, however, reflects the tobacco harvest and cigarette processing energy consumption.  It does not include the energy consumption and emissions of the other ingredients of a cigarette.

 Cigarette contents according to RJReynolds

Cigarette contents according to RJReynolds

As noted, there is a massive list of other ingredients that go into a cigarette.  The list is so long, in fact, I will admit here that I do not have the gumption...nor calculator durability... to calculate the embodied carbon footprint of every item on that list.  Looking at that list, however, you need to visualize that all of those components have raw materials harvested somewhere, a manufacturing process where chemicals are combined to make compounds, frequently with external thermal requirements to achieve a certain temperature.  Each of those components then need to be packaged and shipped to the plant that is combining all of them into the finished cigarette.  An extremely conservative estimate (that is, likely much smaller than reality) would be a carbon footprint equal to the weight of the chemical compounds. 

When it comes to a cigarette's carbon footprint, however, one ingredient stands out: Carbon.  Carbon is actually the second largest ingredient in a cigarette behind tobacco.  This material, added as a heat source, weighs in as 10% of the cigarette's total weight and when lit will combine with oxygen to create 3.67 times the weight in CO2.  Totaling the additive ingredients of a cigarette, we have 0.44 g CO2e for the added carbon and an extremely conservative 0.18 g CO2e for all the other compounds.  Adding that to the 0.6 g for the manufacturing and we have 1.22 g CO2e per cigarette.

Worldwide tobacco production.  Map by AndrewMT

Finally, we have to include the impact of shipping the product from its source to the end users. Tobacco is grown worldwide only in select regions whose climate conditions support the plant, meaning it must be shipped significant distances to the consumers who choose to smoke them.  According to detailed transportation carbon footprint studies by the European Chemical Transport Association there are 62g of greenhouse gas emissions for every kilometer of transport for every ton of payload.  If we assume the average transportation from tobacco farm to cigarette plant to distribution center to store to the consumer's living room is 1,500 miles then shipping each of those cigarettes totals 0.17 g of additional greenhouse gas emissions.

 1 Cigarette (visuals by  Carbon Visuals )

1 Cigarette (visuals by Carbon Visuals)

 1 Year's Worth of Cigarettes

1 Year's Worth of Cigarettes

 Global Cigarette Carbon Footprint

Global Cigarette Carbon Footprint

Based on this we can say that for every cigarette smoked, there is a minimum of 1.39 g of man-made greenhouse gas emissions...roughly 12.8 cubic inches of atmosphere which is about 42 times the volume of the actual cigarette.  For the typical smoker consuming 20 cigarettes a day that's 22.4 pounds CO2e annually.  As of the year 2,000 there were 5.5 trillion cigarettes consumed worldwide every year, which is responsible for ‪16.9 billion pounds of greenhouse gases produced every year by cigarette consumption.  That is over 150 billion cubic feet of man made greenhouse gas emissions annually, which would fill a cube 1 mile high by 1 mile wide and 1 mile deep.