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PANNA: Pesticides in Tobacco Increase Health Risks

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May 11, 2006 -- Andrew Olsen


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PAN Reports: Pesticides in Tobacco Increase Health Risks
May 12, 2006

Elizabeth Anderson was a regular smoker for 10 years. During her last few years of smoking, she changed her diet to organic foods and promptly noticed that she now felt sick every time she smoked. “I knew that tobacco is a heavily-sprayed crop and suspected that my new pesticide-free diet made me more sensitive to the pesticides in the cigarettes,” she says. “I think I was right, because when I stopped smoking, I stopped feeling sick.”

Tobacco growers apply huge amounts of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides to their crops during a three-month growing period. In 1997, the last year for which global data was available, over 5.5 million pounds of the pesticide fumigant methyl bromide were applied to tobacco fields worldwide. Such liberal use of pesticides has serious impacts on human health and the environment.

Anderson's concerns—first for herself and now for friends who still smoke—are well founded. Though there may be other causes for her feeling sick after smoking, according to a study by Monash University in Australia, research indicates that tobacco pesticides can be blamed for a much higher-than-average rate of breast cancer among women in rural England who live near tobacco fields.

Among the pesticides that are commonly used on tobacco are the highly toxic aldicarb and chlorpyrifos. Methyl bromide, an ozone-depleting chemical slated for world-wide elimination, is often used to fumigate the soil prior to planting tobacco seedlings. Fortunately, there are signs of improvement in some places. W ith the aim of reducing methyl bromide use 20 percent by 2005, Brazil went from consuming 1,790 tons in 1998 to 440 tons in 2002.

Some of the pesticides the tobacco industry uses leach into soil and find their way into streams, rivers and food chains. These substances may indirectly cause the genetic selection of pesticide-resistant mosquitoes or flies, making the control of diseases such as malaria particularly difficult. Wildlife is exposed to tobacco pesticides by accidentally eating toxic pesticide residues found on plants and insects, through contact with their skin and eyes, and through inhaling pesticide vapors. This exposure has devastating health effects for birds and mammals.

However, it was concern for human health, not wildlife that prompted the massive tobacco litigation settlements in the United States. Liggett Group, Inc. one of the large tobacco corporations revealed that cigarettes contained DDT, malathion, endrin, and other pesticides that the company itself described as “highly toxic.”

U.S. tobacco consumption has declined, and by 2003 the federal government was taking small steps toward limiting support for tobacco farming. The tobacco companies, the largest and most influential of which are multinational corporations such as Phillip Morris and Reynolds, began moving both their production and their marketing efforts overseas. According to a 2001 report by the Washington, D.C. based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, tobacco production in developing countries grew by 128% between 1975 and 1998. Currently, two-thirds of the world's tobacco is grown in just four countries: China, India, Brazil, and the United States.

There is growing evidence of government laxity and industry influence over the tobacco pesticide regulation process. In 2003, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) found that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was failing to periodically update pesticide residue limits for tobacco and to test imported and domestic tobacco for pesticide levels. A 2005 study that appeared in the respected journal Environmental Health Perspectives showed that although pesticides are regulated nationally and internationally, tobacco companies sometimes exert considerable influence over the regulatory process. Focusing on three pesticides that are routinely applied to tobacco crops—methoprene, the ethylene bisdithiocarbamates and phosphine—the researchers examined approximately 2,000 internal company documents and 3,885 pages of U.S. EPA documents for unspecified companies. They found that the tobacco industry hired former EPA scientists to write reports for the EPA and World Health Organization favorable to industry regarding pesticide regulations.

The study also showed that the industry tried to avoid European Union tobacco pesticide regulations by attempting to self-regulate in Europe, using new European Commission regulations. It was also reported that Philip Morris encouraged a pesticide manufacturer to apply for higher pesticide tolerance levels in Malaysia and Europe while keeping tobacco industry interests a secret from government regulators in those countries.

Meanwhile, people like Elizabeth Anderson are impatient with government regulators who fail to enforce pesticide regulations and corporations that appear to value profits more than life itself. Elizabeth is even impatient with lawsuits against tobacco companies that make no mention of pesticides. “No one talks about the pesticides in cigarettes,” she says. “The only thing that's recognized is that cigarettes are addictive and you can get cancer from them. What about the rest of the story? How much of that lung cancer is really caused by pesticides? Nobody seems to know.”

But many people do know that the fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides in cigarettes are harmful and they're taking action. To find out how you can join them, click here.


Barry, M. 1991. The influence of the US Tobacco industry on the health, economy, and environment of developing countries. New England J Medicine, 324: 917–9. (accessed May 8, 2006). 

Corporate Europe Observer. June 2001. Better Regulation: For Whom? EC Prepares to Dismantle Business Regulation and Expand Corporate Control. Corporate Europe Observer (accessed May 8, 2006).

Bromley, P. T., Palmer, W. E., Southern, S. P. 1992. Pesticides and Wildlife–Tobacco. Department of Entomology, NCSU. (accessed May 8, 2006).

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. 2001. Golden Leaf, Barren Harvest. Washington, D.C. (accessed May 8, 2006).

Hickey, E. and Chan, Y. 1998. Tobacco, Farmers and Pesticides: The Other Story. Pesticide Action Network North America, San Francisco, CA. (accessed May 8, 2006).

Illegal tobacco pesticides linked to high breast cancer rates in rural England. News (accessed May 8, 2006).

McDaniel, P. A., Solomon, G., Malone, R. E. 2005. The Tobacco Industry and Pesticide Regulations: Case Studies from Tobacco Industry Archives. Environmental Health Perspectives, 113 (12), pp. 1659-1665. May 8, 2006).

Osava, M. 2003. Methyl Bromide on Its Way Out in Brazil and Cuba. (accessed May 8, 2006).

Razak, D. A. 1997. Toxic Pesticides in Cigarettes. (accessed May 8, 2006).

Brown, V.J. 2003. Tobacco's Profit, Workers' Loss? Environmental Health Perspectives, 111(5).–5/spheres.html. (accessed May 8, 2006).

United States General Accounting Office. 2003. Pesticides on Tobacco: Federal Activities to Assess Risks and Monitor Residues. (accessed May 8, 2006).


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