The World Health Organization is urging governments worldwide to ban tobacco industry “greenwashing”—the touting of sustainability credentials as a way to distract from the health and environmental impacts of smoking.
In a new report, the health groups detail efforts by the tobacco industry to improve its image.
“This kind of activity gives the impression that the tobacco industry is socially and environmentally responsible,” the report’s authors warn. “Yet this industry is causing an incalculable toll on health to smokers, non-smokers and farmers. And not only is tobacco harming humans, it is also damaging the environment.”
Tobacco companies frequently tout their environmental credentials, and their efforts have been recognized by independent organizations. Most multinationals feature prominently on CDP’s prestigious A list, for example. CDP is a not-for-profit charity that runs a global disclosure system for investors, companies, cities and regions to manage their environmental impacts. Its process is acknowledged as the gold standard of corporate environmental transparency.
Tobacco companies also rank highly on the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices, a global sustainability benchmark that tracks the stock performance of the world’s leading companies in terms of economic, environmental and social criteria.
Critics contend that ESG rankings and accreditations rarely consider a company’s end-product or service, in this case, ignoring the fact that tobacco products are harmful to human health, according to the report.
The report says there are more than 600 different ways to assess corporate ESG activity and there are no global, standardized disclosure requirements for companies to follow, which means businesses can edit sustainability data to promote a favorable outcome.
The authors of the greenwashing reports urge organizations to avoid partnerships with cigarette companies engaged in environmental activities that could promote the industry as an environmental partner.
The WHO/STOP report also highlights the ecological impact of the tobacco industry. Annually, 32 million tons of tobacco leaf is grown globally to produce 6 trillion cigarettes, according to its authors. It takes about 22 billion tons of water to grow the global crop, often in places where water is limited, they argue.
The report estimates that nearly 1.5 billion acres of global forest have been lost to tobacco farming since the 1970s. Electronic cigarettes, meanwhile, introduce plastic, nicotine salts, heavy metals, lead, mercury and lithium-ion batteries into the environment.