Cigarette ads were banned decades ago. Do the same for fossil fuels

There is no reasonable disagreement that humanity needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. People might argue about how big a reduction is needed or the best ways to achieve it, but almost everyone agrees it needs to be done.

The available science suggests that technological solutions alone will not do the trick. We need to reduce the consumption of high-emitting goods and services, those made from or heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

And yet, advertising for these goods and services is everywhere, encouraging the consumption of fossil fuels: flights to Rome, vans and SUVs, cruises to Alaska, steak from Argentina, etc.

Should such advertising be banned for fossil fuel-intensive goods and services? This would only be consistent with the way we deal with other products whose consumption causes serious harm, such as tobacco. For example, the United Kingdom banned television cigarette advertising in 1965, the United States banned cigarette advertising on television and radio in 1970, and Canada banned all forms of online advertising. tobacco since 1989.

The harm principle

A fundamental tenet of liberalism holds that individuals should not be coerced into their actions unless those actions cause harm to others. For example, you are not allowed to drive through a residential area at 100 kilometers per hour, as this would endanger the lives of other people.

Now, you could rightly point out that when you take a flight to a sunny beach in Mexico, you’re not putting other people’s lives at risk, at least not in the same direct way. However, there is a collective action problem here: if everyone takes a flight to a sunny beach in Mexico, the aggregate emissions from all flights will lead to a warmer planet, extreme weather events and not only harm others , but will put lives at risk. .

Emissions from cars, trucks and other gasoline-powered vehicles put lives at risk.
(Shutterstock)

It is controversial whether this publicized harm from your flight to Mexico is enough to justify preventing you from going to Mexico. Instead, I propose to apply a weaker and less controversial version of the harm principle: when the actions of individuals cause significant harm to others, even indirectly and through aggregate effects, then in as a society, we should refrain from encouraging these actions.

We know that emissions from fossil fuel-intensive goods and services put lives at risk. We also know that, overall, advertising encourages their consumption. Therefore, according to this version of the harm principle, we should ban advertising for fossil fuel-intensive activities.

An important precedent

As the World Health Organization points out, “tobacco kills nearly six million of its users each year”. Because of the harmful effects of smoking, its proven link with several forms of cancer in particular, states have taken measures to discourage it.

These measures include a complete ban on all advertising of tobacco products under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. They are further justified because of the side effects of smoking, i.e. health risks to people other than the smoker himself.

A 1950s advertisement for cigarettes, showing a dentist recommending them.
Tobacco kills nearly six million smokers each year.
(cloth/flickr), CC BY-NC-SA

The number of people dying from climate change is already comparable to smoking-related deaths. One study estimates that between 2000 and 2019, more than five million people a year died from the effects of climate change. With the frequency of heat waves, severe storms, floods and other extreme weather events expected to increase due to climate change, this number will only increase in the years to come.

Given what corporations have done on tobacco, it would make sense to ban advertising for fossil fuel-intensive activities. Moreover, the status quo is also incompatible with the purported commitment of governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Governments around the world have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, in a bid to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 1.5°C. Yet they tolerate publicity for activities that are clearly counterproductive to achieving this lofty goal. It’s like a rehab center that puts up posters telling its patients how good it is to take drugs.

Where to start?

Finding a definition of a fossil fuel-intensive activity is a little more complex than defining smoking, but it can be done. Here’s a plausible starting point: Set some emission intensity threshold that qualifies the good or service for the ban.

For example, given that the average passenger vehicle emits about 2.3 grams of carbon dioxide per liter of gasoline, one could ban advertising of any vehicle that emits more than that and then lower the threshold to further encourage the ‘innovation. This same standard would then be applied to other means of transport such as flights, pleasure boats, cruises. Similar thresholds for other categories of goods and services such as red meat or construction could also be defined.



Read more: The age of fossil fuels is coming to an end, but the lawsuits are just beginning


Politically, the proposal faces two significant challenges: industry pushback and political reluctance to ask voters to moderate their lifestyles. Once again, valuable lessons can be learned from tobacco.

The trigger for change could lie in legal action that gives voice to the core interests of members of future generations – those who are harmed today by fossil fuel advertising. We owe it to them not to encourage activities that will kill them.

About Margaret Shaw

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