Dear Umbra,

I want to quit smoking. As if the risks to my health weren’t enough, could you help out by twisting that knife of guilt into my tree-hugging heart and give me some environmental reasons to stop supporting the tobacco industry?

Cough, wheeze,

Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

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Dearest Elaine,

I don’t care whether you smoke or not. In fact, I think anti-smoking hype is often thinly disguised class warfare and would be best put to use as a template to create, say, anti-SUV hype or anti-pesticide-laden-suburban-lawn hype. Still, I hear your pain, and if you want me to browbeat you over the final guilt threshold, I’ll do my best to oblige. Brace yourself.

Smoking harms people
— and the environment.

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Smoking is horrid, and the harm you are doing to your own health is just the icing on the toxic tobacco cake. From seed to smokes, those little white sticks leave a swath of death in their wake. Pesticides, pesticides, pesticides — no large-scale crop is grown without ’em, and you can bet your tobacco has been sprayed right up to the moment of harvest and beyond. Every time you purchase a pack, you are supporting the chemical companies that make the pesticides and contributing to water pollution, habitat destruction, and the pesticide poisoning of farm workers and their families.

So if contemplating the ever-darker shade of your lungs isn’t sufficient to deter you from smoking, try this: As you pull out that $6 for a pack of Camel Lights, think of the farmhand who comes home coated with chemicals and hugs her little daughter. Or think of the pesticide residue on her living room carpet, where baby Johnnie crawls around, stuffing his fingers and toes in his mouth at every opportunity. You might as well take that $6 and give it straight to the Society for Poisoning Cute Babies.

Harvesting tobacco in Virginia.
Photo: USDA.

Wait, that’s not all! Other families, struggling to make ends meet in the global market, have converted valuable farmland to tobacco crops, taking it out of food production and leaving them dependent on expensive, imported food for their own diet. Moreover, tobacco must be cured so that you can have your delicious drag. The heat used to cure tobacco must be generated by fuel, and in developing nations, tobacco growers are cutting down precious trees to build and heat the tobacco-drying sheds or “flues.” Not only does this increase global deforestation and erosion, it eats into a fuel source that otherwise would be used in cooking, which most folks would agree is more vital to human survival than drying tobacco.

Let’s see, what else? Oh, yes, there’re the cellophane wrappers, the cardboard packaging, the disgusting cigarette butts littered everywhere, the forest fires … See? Smoking binds you to a vast community of repulsive polluters whose members think of nothing but their own cravings. You are a one-woman industrial smokestack. It’s your choice to destroy your own lungs and inject yourself with mysterious additives and pesticide residue — but it’s another thing entirely to support an industry that harms human and environmental health, and to force your cigarette exhaust onto innocent civilians who wish to live long and happy lives.

There’s no point in considering yourself a tree hugger if you continue to smoke. It’s hypocritical. But it’s not too late to change your evil ways. When you get the craving, take a deep breath and picture endless tobacco fields with planes flying overhead spraying herbicide on underpaid, overworked laborers. Surely that will help you find a somewhat more wholesome habit to pursue. Put aside the money you normally spend on smokes and send it to the United Farm Workers of America instead.


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