RECENTLY, the City of Sydney Council committed to banning fossil fuel advertising on its properties and events. The decision followed an open letter signed by more than 200 health professionals and organisations asking for such bans because of the damaging effects of fossil fuel combustion on health and the climate.
Those behind the fossil fuel advertising ban, CommsDeclare, are not doctors but a group led by marketing, public relations, advertising and media professionals. They advocate for tobacco-style bans on fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship.
So, will the health sector take a stand on this public health issue as it did with tobacco?
The action by CommsDeclare parallels the Australian campaign to ban tobacco advertising on health grounds that started to produce successes in the mid to late 1970s.
The 2022 Tobacco in Australia review by the Cancer Council outlined the main arguments in support of implementing comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, including the devastating health consequences of tobacco use; the failure of the tobacco industry to effectively self-regulate; and the deceptive and misleading nature of tobacco marketing campaigns.
These arguments are as applicable to the fossil fuel industry as they are to the tobacco industry. To these, we can add the existential threat to humanity that the continued use of fossil fuels poses via uncontrollable climate change. For this is not just about individual health but the very survival of our species on a planet rapidly approaching irreversible tipping points.
Like tobacco, the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion are already well documented. These are either directly from air pollution or indirectly mediated through climate change impacts at just over 1°C of warming thus far.
Deaths due to air pollution from fossil fuel combustion are estimated to be 8 million annually or around one in five deaths globally. In Australia, an estimated 2600 people die prematurely each year from anthropogenic air pollution. These deaths largely relate to increased cardiovascular and respiratory mortality in relation to fine particulate matter < 2.5 µm (PM2.5).
A recent study estimated that between 2000 and 2019, more than 5 million annual premature deaths were attributable to a warming climate.
Global deaths due to weather-related disasters have been approximately 2 million in the past 50 years, with climate change driving more frequent events. As the recent floods in Pakistan have shown, the impacts of such events are not just on mortality but widespread disruption to housing, agriculture and infrastructure, with those most marginalised being most at risk.
In Australia in 2022, we have seen how the floods in Queensland and New South Wales have had profound social impacts with tens of thousands of people having been evacuated, homes destroyed, and communities now facing years of rebuilding.
Climate change can also have profound impacts on health care delivery and access. As the 2019–2020 bushfires in Australia demonstrated, health systems subject to natural disasters can be overwhelmed with disruption to power, transport and communications.
We banned tobacco advertising because of the harm it caused. The number of people dying from fossil fuel combustion is at least comparable to the current worldwide smoking-related deaths of 8 million annually. Deaths would be higher without tobacco advertising bans. A review of the effects of tobacco adverting laws in 30 low income countries showed that comprehensive bans resulted in a 23.5% reduction in per capita consumption of tobacco. Comprehensive advertising bans are essential to reducing the health burden of tobacco use.
We need to rapidly shift cultural attitudes to transition to a decarbonised economy now. This means we must consider all measures, including banning the marketing of fossil fuels.
The fossil fuel industry like the tobacco industry is incapable of self-regulation. As reports from all over the world of record-breaking temperatures and unprecedented heatwaves, floods, droughts, and cyclones continue, the fossil fuel industry has done nothing to change its own behaviour.
The pathway to net zero as outlined by the International Energy Agency precludes new fossil fuel development or extension to existing projects. Yet an analysis of eight of the world’s largest oil and gas companies found that they alone are involved in over 200 new projects expected to be approved for development from 2022 to 2025, resulting in an additional 8.6 gigatonnes of carbon pollution – equivalent to more than one-quarter of the world’s total energy sector emissions in 2020. Their actions then are effectively a bet against the success of the Paris Agreement and a lethal dose for humanity.
As these companies continue with business as usual, they are at the same time marketing their green credentials. A recent investigation found that company pledges to decarbonise and transition are not met by concrete actions. A review of their financial statements reveals a continuing business model dependent on fossil fuels and insignificant and opaque spending on clean energy.
ClientEarth, an environmental law charity, outlines the evidence for greenwashing of eight major fossil fuel companies, concluding that their advertising fails to match with the real commitments on climate action.
And in Australia, the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) filed new allegations against Santos in the Federal Court case it started in August 2021. ACCR claims the gas producer has breached Australian consumer law by misleading investors about its climate credentials.
The sole purpose of advertising is to promote the ongoing consumption of the company’s product. Having known since the 1970s that burning fossil fuels causes climate change, fossil fuel companies, through sophisticated campaigns, have intentionally cast doubt on the science in a strategy that parallels that used by tobacco companies to delay action against them.
Overstating the attributes of new technologies such as carbon capture and storage, when all such projects have never been shown to work at the scale needed to address the climate crisis, provides a further avenue for them to continue their polluting.
Fossil fuel advertising postpones the shift in social and political attitudes that is urgently required to transition to safer, cleaner energy. These companies are perfectly aware that fossil fuels must end very soon, but in pursuit of profit, each company is competing to be the last one standing. And we now have less than 8 years to halve greenhouse gas emissions according to scientists.
It was the health sector in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia that presented evidence for the health impacts of smoking and who lobbied for tobacco advertising bans. We acted because of the harm that smoking caused, the deceptive nature of the industry’s marketing, and the failure of the industry to self-regulate. We now need to turn our focus squarely and urgently on fossil fuel advertising.
The pathway to achieving net zero is now extremely narrow. Even if all pledges by governments to date were fully achieved the world would still be well short of the emissions reductions necessary to keep to below 1.5°C. Only urgent, rapid and deep cuts to emissions will give us a chance. Allowing fossil fuel companies to promote their climate-destroying activities must be stopped.
The health sector collectively needs to take a position on fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship as we did with tobacco and not be complicit through our silence. We call on our colleges, our medical schools and leading health organisations to step up and support a complete ban on fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship.
Richard Yin is a Perth GP and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
Carolyn Orr is a neurologist from Western Australia and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.
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