Novel nicotine products can’t escape WHO’s focus on environmental impact

Of course it was only to be expected that the World Health Organization (WHO) would include novel nicotine products in its annual condemnations for World No Tobacco Day, but the approach it took this year was significant: a focus on the environment.

Cataloguing negative environmental impacts of the tobacco and nicotine industries – ranging from green tobacco sickness among farmers, to agricultural water consumption and deforestation, to the carbon footprint of distribution, to the plague of discarded cigarette butts – the WHO highlighted issues which are often overlooked while more attention is paid to the direct public health impacts of smoking itself.

It did succumb, at one point, to rather bizarre comparisons: while annual packaging waste from tobacco products may indeed weigh 17,000 times as much as China’s Bell of Good Luck, illustrating the point this way is likely to be obscure rather than informative to all but a few Chinese campanologists.

Still, these criticisms need to be taken seriously. And though they already are a prominent part of the conversation within the mainstream tobacco industry itself, those in the novel nicotine sector – especially in smaller companies less obviously connected with tobacco growing – should not assume that they are exempt.

What novel products gain by not producing smoke with all its attendant health risks they potentially lose, from an environmental point of view, in their greater complexity – especially when they are electronic devices. Components and materials such as plastics (particularly single-use plastics in disposable products), metals and batteries are all objects of concern.

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    Certainly, for the WHO, being able to highlight these environmental problems with tobacco products aligns very nicely with its general detestation of them.

    But it would be a serious mistake to dismiss its World No Tobacco Day report as a kind of inverted greenwashing. More scrutiny, and regulation, of environmental aspects of tobacco products is undoubtedly coming: and not primarily because they are tobacco products, but because it’s coming for everyone.

    The good news is that making products greener is a win-win. Not only is it positive for the environment and society, consumers tend to like it too (even if it’s not the differentiator it used to be). And acting before regulation requires action will avoid giving policy-makers yet another stick with which to beat the nicotine sector.

     Barnaby Page TobaccoIntelligence staff

    Photo: kazuend

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    Barnaby Page

    Editorial director
    Before joining ECigIntelligence in early 2014 as one of its first employees, Barnaby had a 30-year career as a reporter and editor for newspapers, magazines and online services, working in Canada, the US and the Middle East as well as his current British location. He has edited publications covering fields including technology and the advertising industry, and was launch editor of the first large daily online news service in the British regional media. Barnaby also writes on classical music and film for a number of publications. Barnaby manages the editorial and reporting teams and works closely with the analyst teams, to ensure that all content meets high standards of quality and relevance. He also writes for the site occasionally, mostly on science-related issues, and is a member of the Association of British Science Writers.