When we think of tobacco, we often think of the products it’s used in, like cigarettes, snus and heated tobacco products. But what exactly is tobacco, and how did it become the global health burden it is today?
The simple answer: Tobacco is a plant that contains nicotine, a highly addictive chemical. The leaves of the plant are processed and made into tobacco products. Tobacco products are a leading cause of many cancers, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Tobacco use kills more than 8 million people every year.
Giant corporations globalized tobacco use and drove the tobacco epidemic.
Native to the Americas, tobacco is now grown and consumed around the world. Tobacco is produced in more than 125 countries, with China, India and Brazil producing the most tobacco leaf. Tobacco growing drives deforestation and tobacco farmers—and their children—are often exploited.
Today, a massive, global industry exists around the growing, manufacturing and selling of tobacco. The tobacco supply chain is made up of many players, from farmers to processors to retailers, but four large international corporations drive the industry: Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Brands.* They and their subsidiaries make up Big Tobacco, and are primarily responsible for perpetuating the worldwide tobacco epidemic.
The Big 4 rake in hundreds of billions of dollars in profits every year by selling addictive products, most of which contain tobacco. To protect these profits, they aggressively market to youth, hoping to hook younger users and create lifetime customers. They also oppose tobacco control policies, such as increased tobacco taxes, smoke-free spaces and advertising bans that would encourage people to avoid or quit tobacco. Many governments have successfully implemented these policies, but unfortunately others are still influenced by the industry’s interests.
Tobacco can be consumed in several different ways.
Cigarettes are the world’s most popular tobacco product. Together, the Big 4 produce trillions of cigarettes every year. Cigarettes are a leading cause of cancer and heart disease worldwide. Cigarette filters, found in almost all commercial cigarettes, have no proven health benefits and are one of the world’s leading causes of toxic, single-use plastic pollution.
Tobacco is also sold loose for use in pipes or “roll-your-own” cigarettes. Snus, or moist tobacco powder, can be consumed orally by tucking it in the user’s lip, either loose or in a small packet. Snus is a common example of smokeless tobacco.
Other tobacco products are popular in specific regions or countries. Bidis are a hand-rolled tobacco product popular in South Asia and primarily in India, with bidi sales outnumbering cigarette sales eight-to-one. Unlike commercial cigarettes which are produced in factories, bidis are often produced at home by unregistered subcontractors. Bidi smoke contains more tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide than cigarettes. Kreteks, a cigarette containing tobacco mixed with cloves, is produced and consumed predominantly in Indonesia. Additionally, waterpipes, which often use flavored tobacco, are especially common in the Eastern Mediterranean region. While these products have regional popularity, they’re also exported to countries around the globe.