Why is the smoke from 3 billion cigarettes not included in our emissions inventory?

Update 2: 23/12/2017: this article contains a serious error: we did not spot a unit typo in the original VOC source article which led to our calculation being 1,000x out. Full details here

Hong Kong smokers produced 11,477 tonnes of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in 2015 according to new calculations by Blue Skies China: that’s a 11,477-tonne cloud of smog-forming chemicals which would raise the city’s VOC emissions figures by 43% if included in the public inventory.

Smoke is not seen as a major source of pollution in Hong Kong – but while a cigarette only weighs a gramme or so, the sheer number being smoked in Hong Kong adds up to a significant environmental debt. According to the Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong’s daily smokers smoke around 3.1 billion cigarettes per year between them. If we estimate conservatively that this accounts for all smoking in the city (and ignore any smoke from occasional smokers or the 4 million mainland visitors per month), we can re-tally our emissions inventory to more accurately reflect conditions on the ground.

So what do the figures look like? Adding cigarette smoke to the inventory wouldn’t be a disaster for the 2020 regional goals, but it means the next few years wouldn’t be a celebratory saunter to the finish line, either.

Count cigarette pollution for more accurate measure of our emissions status

The impact of counting cigarette pollution in our emissions inventory

2010 2015 2020 target [1]
Measured VOC inventory (tonnes)[2] 31,020 26,610 26,637
Cigarette VOC (tonnes)[3] 12,305 11,477
Total VOC 43,325 38,087 36,826

According to last week’s mid-term regional emissions inventory communiqué from Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department (EPD), the city is already only a few hundred tonnes shy of its 2020 VOC reduction target. The latest figures show VOCs are down 14.2% on the 2010 baseline, requiring a further reduction of only 243 tonnes, or 0.9% of today’s output, for Hong Kong to meet its regional 2020 commitment with Guangdong of a 15% reduction on the 2010 baseline.

But if the cigarette VOC inventory is included, the government’s “nearly there” 14.2% mid-term report-card becomes a “must try harder” 12.1%, with the need to cut a further 1,261 tonnes from the inventory by 2020. That’s around 5% of the present (non-tobacco) inventory and, without also reducing cigarette pollution (or banning paint thinner), the government would need to seriously step up efforts to pull this off.

The good news is, the 2020 VOC target could still be met by cutting the numbers of cigarettes smoked by 11%. Not only does this allow Hong Kong to meet its regional emissions inventory targets, but it would reduce VOC-sourced smog and other air pollution on the streets. Furthermore, having the EPD taking a hardline position against cigarette pollution would bring a new dimension to tobacco control debates and some much needed fresh ammunition in the fight against big tobacco.

We call on the government to include the significant pollution from cigarettes into Hong Kong’s official emissions inventory and to work out ways to reduce cigarette pollution as an air quality issue.

Update & Clarification 20/12/2017: Figures recently circulated by Clear The Air show a higher cigarette pollution than our published figures. The two estimates are based on slightly different assumptions: 1) Clear The Air bases its calculations the latest 2016 figures of cigarettes sold (3,333,569,000), whereas we used 2015 data. 2) Clear The Air adds 411.8 million illicit cigarettes to the number of cigarettes smoked in Hong Kong; and 3) Clear The Air also adds PM2.5 into the pollution load, while we focussed only on VOCs. Clear The Air thus estimates 13,715 tonnes of pollution every year or around 37.6 tonnes per day in 2016. Although our calculations are sound according to the assumptions made, we are happy to defer to this refined calculation for total cigarette pollution.

[1] Calculated as 15% reduction on 2010 baseline

[2] Government press release “Guangdong and Hong Kong release mid-term review results on PRD air pollutant emission reduction targets for 2015 and 2020”

[3] Cigarettes smoked calculated for 2015 using the Census & Statistics Department’s Thematic Household Survey Report No. 59 on daily smoking rates. Calculated for 2010 using tax data (supplied directly from Hong Kong Customs & Excise department) from 2010 and 2015 and assuming a similar ratio of “cigarettes sold:cigarettes smoked” in 2015 and 2010. VOC emissions calculated using VOC and Particulate Emissions from Commercial Cigarettes: Analysis of 2,5-DMF as an ETS Tracer, Simone M. Charles, Chunrong Jia, Stuart A. Batterman, and Christopher Godwin, Environmental Science & Technology 2008 42 (4), 1324-1331


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  1. Oops… our VOC calculation was 1000x wrong – Blue Skies China

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