Here’s the good news: Surveys show that cigarette smoking rates in the U.S. are at an all-time low.

And now the very bad news: About 20 percent of Americans smoke, with experts saying that this rate has plateaued. “Smoking is still the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States and has been for decades,” CNN writes.

To drive this point home even further, a recent report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that 14 million major medical conditions in the country are smoking-related. As Reuters reports, these illnesses include 4.3 million cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 2.3 million heart attacks, 1.8 million cases of diabetes, 1.1 million strokes and over a million cases of smoking-related cancers. (The report doesn’t even mention the ridiculously expensive healthcare costs associated with these illnesses.)

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Cigarettes can be so addictive that many smokers don’t even care about their health (or even the health of second-hand smokers). However, many smokers probably don’t realize the environmental devastation caused by cigarettes and the tobacco industry.

Here’s why smoking should be considered not just a health concern, but a major environmental one as well.

How many of us have seen someone mindlessly flick a finished cigarette onto the sidewalk? Even though it’s illegal to litter, these mostly plastic, non-biodegradable cigarette butts seem to be only exception. In fact, cigarette tips are the most commonly littered item in the U.S. and around the world — an estimated 4.5 trillion tips are tossed worldwide per year. Discarded butts wind up in parks, beaches (they account for 28 percent of sand litter worldwide) and public roads, plus they wash up in waterways where the chemically toxic tips contaminate the water supply and/or get eaten by unsuspecting aquatic creatures. Cleanup is also a very expensive problem: In 2009, San Francisco spent about $10 million on tobacco litter.

A smoker might contend, “Well, I don’t litter.” But that doesn’t take away from all the trees that are chopped down for this guilty nicotine fix. TreeHugger makes several salient points:

— In Africa, around 5 percent of all deforestation is caused by tobacco. In Malawi, where the ancient dry forests of the miombo highlands are particularly under threat, tobacco accounts for 20 percent of deforestation.
— Each year nearly 600 million trees are destroyed to provide fuel to dry tobacco. Put another way — one tree is destroyed for every 300 cigarettes.
— Globally, tobacco curing requires 11.4 million tons of solid wood annually.
 — Tobacco is a sensitive plant prone to many diseases. It therefore requires huge chemical inputs: up to 16 applications of pesticide are recommended during one three-month growing period. Aldrin and Dieldrin, and DDT are among the chemicals used. Methyl bromide, widely used as a fumigant in developing countries, contributes significantly to ozone depletion.
— As well as being hazardous to users, chemicals may run off into water courses, contaminating local water supplies. There are also concerns about high levels of pesticide use leading to the development of resistance in mosquitoes and flies, making the control of diseases such as malaria more difficult.
— Tobacco is particularly potassium-hungry, absorbing up to six times as much as other crops, leaving soil in poor condition for essential food and cash crops.
— Modern cigarette manufacturing machines use more than six kilometers of paper per hour.

The best solution for both you and the planet? Quitting. But of course, that’s much easier said than done. Some companies are developing biodegradable butts and many cities and some states have smoking bans in private and public spaces and diligently fine litterers.

Tobacco Control (an international journal covering tobacco use) suggests a deposit-return scheme similar to recycling cans and bottles where smokers can collect money for cigarette tips. The organization also urges tobacco control and environmental activists “to work together to hold the global cigarette industry accountable for the toxic mess they’ve caused.”

If you are a smoker and would like to curb your own cigarette litter, you can send your butts to TerraCycle for it to be recycled.

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