Should Canada ban fossil fuel ads like it does for tobacco?

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Claiming to be the world’s first fossil fuel advertising ban led by medical professionals, 34 organizations representing 700,000 Canadian workers are calling on the federal government to end ads promoting fossil fuels and gas-powered cars.

No doors. No windshield. And definitely no cup holders. But in 1896, in one of the first automobile advertisements ever printed, Winton Motor Carriage Co. of Cleveland, Ohio had something else up its sleeve.

“DISPENSION WITH A HORSE,” said the headline of the ad.

“The hydrocarbon engine is simple and powerful. No smell.

Over the next few decades, cars would become even more powerful, more ubiquitous – suddenly transforming the way humanity traveled while spitting out carbon dioxide and other pollutants at increasingly dangerous levels.

More than 125 years later, the internal combustion engine remains one of the biggest drivers of global emissions, on the road, accounting for around a fifth of all greenhouse gases and helping to cause catastrophic events like thermal dome from last year in British Columbia, which is now believed to have killed 619 people.

In Canada, road transportation and the oil and gas sector account for almost half of all greenhouse gases produced in the country (this number does not include fossil fuels burned abroad).

Odorless or not, fossil fuels are also a leading cause of outdoor air pollution, which Health Canada estimates contributed to 15,300 premature deaths in 2016, although a recent international study estimates that these deaths could be more than double.

In Metro Vancouver, research spanning decades has linked higher prevalences of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to lower educational baseline scores with air pollution due to traffic and the lack of green spaces.

Inside, research has suggested that burning liquefied natural gas as a cooking fuel at home increases the likelihood of children having asthma by 42% and increases their risk of developing asthma during of their life by 24%, which is comparable to life with a smoker.

Indoor air quality research is still in its infancy compared to what is known about what we breathe outdoors. But early work indicates that a number of daily tasks could lead to a “very unhealthy” environment at home.

Given these threats to human health, 34 health organizations across Canada are calling for a tobacco-style ban on fossil fuel advertising that includes:

  • motor vehicles with internal combustion engines;
  • fossil fuel utilities distributing fuel to homes;
  • and fossil fuel companies that produce and distribute oil, gasoline, diesel and coal.

Together, the industries account for more than 60% of all carbon pollution in Canada, according to the Health Professionals Coalition.

“Chevron or Shell shouldn’t be able to put up a big billboard saying their gas is clean,” said Melissa Lem, a family physician in Vancouver, B.C., and president-elect of the Canadian Medical Association for the environment (ACEP).

“The images we see and the words we hear must reflect the reality that fossil fuels are bad for your health. And so allowing these companies to greenwash, allowing these companies to promote the use of their products is analogous to promoting tobacco use.

In an open letter to several federal ministers, including those responsible for health, natural resources and climate change, the organizations – which together represent more than 700,000 health care workers – called for an end to “misinformation about fossil fuels” which “stands in the way of climate action. .”

The letter — signed by Doctors of BC, the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the British Columbia Public Health Association, among other organizations not known for their activism — denounces fossil fuel advertising for omitting to disclose the known health and environmental risks it poses to the public.

“High-profile anti-smoking campaigns and graphic warnings on cigarette packaging alert to the dangers of smoking,” reads the letter. “Similarly, Canadian broadcasters allocate free time to public service announcements about the risks of alcohol.

“Yet there has been no parallel effort to educate the public about the health and environmental risks of carbon pollution and other pollutants generated by burning fossil fuels.”

Lem said the campaign to end fossil fuel advertising is a direct call to protect public health in the same way Canada banned cigarette advertising in 1998 after decades of pressure from governments. doctors.

Only this time, the dozens of healthcare organizations are looking to do it much faster.

“We don’t have five decades to wait to ban fossil fuel advertising and reduce demand for it,” Lem said. “It makes sense that medical professionals are leading this campaign because the climate crisis is a health crisis.”

This isn’t the first time CAPE has turned to advertising to warn of the health risks of fossil fuels. In August 2021, the group erected their own billboard near the entrance to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal in Delta, BC.

The aggressive poster campaign targeting BC Ferries for burning liquefied natural gas – or LNG – a mixture largely of methane, they say, threatens human health and the global climate system.

In the 20 years after methane is released, the gas is about 85 times more potent in its ability to warm the planet than carbon dioxide. Since 2007, methane emissions have been steadily rising across the planet, according to a 2021 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), considered the gold standard. of climate science.

A roadside billboard erected next to BC Ferries’ Tsawwassen Terminal has passers-by asking questions about the use of natural gas on ferries and elsewhere in the province. Mark Booth/Delta Optimist

Fossil fuel advertising bans have already been put in place in places like Amsterdam, which has banned advertisements for fossil fuels, cars and aviation. The Canadian campaign also points the finger at advertising watchdogs in the UK and the Netherlands who have also targeted false advertising produced by companies claiming their products or operations are carbon neutral.

And in France this year, the country passed a bill that will ban advertising for internal combustion engine vehicles that still produce emissions above a certain threshold by 2028.

Claiming to be the world’s first campaign to ban fossil fuel ads led by medical professionals, the campaign also calls on Canada’s Competition Bureau to expand scrutiny of companies trying to “green” their products. .

Targeting greenwashing would not be new to the bureau, an independent law enforcement agency created to protect and promote competitive business practices.

Following a global report released in January that found 40% of companies make misleading environmental claims, the bureau warned Canadians to be on the lookout for the practice.

“It can take many forms, including claims, adjectives, colors and symbols used to make a product or service appear ‘greener’ than it actually is,” said the office said in a statement at the time.

“If a company claims a product or service is ‘green’, take a moment to reflect on that claim.”

The office has had success in the past. In a victory over greenwashing earlier this year, the Competition Bureau reached a settlement with Keurig Canada to pay a $3 million fine after it made false and misleading environmental claims.

The case centered on the coffee company telling consumers — via social media, its website, and directly on product packaging — that its single-serve K-Cup pods were recyclable. The bureau found that British Columbia and Quebec were the only provinces where municipal recycling programs widely accepted coffee pods.

Keurig Canada was also found to have made false or misleading claims by giving consumers the impression that they could recycle the pods by removing the lid and disposing of the grounds.

In addition to the $3 million fine, Keurig Canada was forced to pay the bureau’s $85,000 investigation costs and donate $800,000 to a Canadian environmental charity.

The company is no longer allowed to make false claims on its packaging, online or in the media.

Regulating fossil fuel advertising, however, would be a sea change for the office.

In an April application to Canada’s Competition Bureau, Indigenous leaders and environmentalists came together to demand that RBC end its funding of fossil fuels and stop “misleading the public.”

According to a report produced earlier this year, RBC is among the top five bank financiers of fossil fuel projects in the world, and the largest in Canada.

The report, which surveyed 60 banks around the world, found that RBC had increased its investments in fossil fuel projects to nearly $38 billion, up from more than $19 billion in 2020.

In a statement to Glacier Media, RBC spokesman Rafael Ruffolo said the bank “strongly disagrees with the allegations” and believes the complaint is unfounded.

Regulatory oversight isn’t the only path the Open Letter is taking to transform motor vehicle and fossil fuel advertising.

In addition to strong regulation, the 34 professional health organizations are calling for a “comprehensive ban on advertising by fossil fuel industries, products and services” enacted by the government. And if these ads continue, the Government of Canada should at the very least mandate “disclosure of the health and environmental risks associated with the production and use of fossil fuels.”

“We need warnings like these pharmaceutical ads that you’ll see in American stations, how they advertise the drug, but then they have all this text that then talks about all the different risks and side effects that can be associated with the use of this medication,” Lem said.

“We need the same kind of thing for fossil fuels.”

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