Smoking out the public health threat posed by climate change

We have graphic warning labels on cigarette packages, so why not labels on high carbon-emission products that are killing people?

Municipal, provincial and federal governments have taken strong action to reduce tobacco use – with great success – over the last 30 years. Since 1990, tobacco-smoking rates have fallen by about 50 per cent.

But during that time, another public health threat has emerged: climate breakdown. And, like tobacco, it’s killing people.

According to the World Health Organization, within a decade climate-related extreme weather, food insecurity and disease will cause 250,000 deaths a year.

To avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate chaos, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is calling for a 45 per cent reduction in global carbon emissions by 2030.

But compared to comprehensive action taken to reduce tobacco use, government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and more specifically, fossil fuel use – has been minimal.

While governments in Canada launched high-profile anti-smoking campaigns, they have yet to implement a significant public campaign to alert Canadians to the dangers of fossil fuel use. In fact, they’ve done the opposite. The Alberta NDP government recently spent $23 million advertising the economic and health benefits of the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Contrary to the strict regulation of tobacco advertising, there are no limits on the advertising of fossil-fuel-intensive products and services. Instead, Canadians are bombarded with ads promoting the purchase of high-emission products and services, such as pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, meat-based foods and overseas vacations.

While cigarette packages must display graphic disease warnings, there is no requirement in Canada for companies to provide information about the carbon footprint of products, and warnings about health impacts of high-emission products are rare. Three British Columbia municipalities have voted to add climate warning labels to gasoline pumps, but Toronto recently rejected the idea.

And although federal and provincial governments have begun to tax carbon, the level of taxation is minimal compared to high tax rates on cigarettes. Meanwhile, the federal government continues, counterproductively, to subsidize fossil fuel production to the tune of billions of dollars a year.

Governments achieved dramatic reductions in smoking rates through a combination of public education, restrictions on tobacco advertising, warnings on cigarette packages, taxation of tobacco products, prohibition of smoking in public spaces and support for smoking cessation.

They made it easier for people to shift away from tobacco use with helplines and quit smoking centres, but in some ways we are going backwards on fossil fuel use. It is now largely impossible to travel by lower-emission bus or train between most western Canada cities.

The success of anti-smoking strategies suggests that Canada should consider making high-emission products more costly by raising taxes on carbon, ending fossil fuel subsidies and considering additional targeted taxes on frequent flyers and high-emission vehicles.

We should also consider requiring carbon-emission labels on food and other high-emission products.

No doubt there are differences between the policy mix needed to animate a rapid shift away from fossil fuel use and the policies used to reduce smoking. Nevertheless, it is time to name the climate crisis for what it is: a health emergency resulting from our societal dependence on fossil fuels. 

Michael Polanyi is a community worker, researcher and activist.


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