It is the ultimate irony that as Canada celebrated Clean Air Day on June 7, the country was experiencing the worst air quality in the world. In the past few weeks, millions of people from B.C. to Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia have faced suffocating wildfire smoke, resulting in difficulty breathing, exacerbation of heart disease and potential harm to pregnant women and their children.
As health-care providers, we are on the front lines of such climate-fuelled disasters, treating patients suffering from smoke inhalation, anxiety and the hazardous effects of air pollution from burning fossil fuels, which kill 8.7 million people annually, about the same as tobacco. The devastating wildfires and other climate disasters are a stark reminder of the urgent need for action to address the root cause of the problem.
This is why we — a group of practising physicians in Canada — launched an e-petition to the House of Commons calling on the federal government to take action and ban the advertising and sponsorship of these dangerous products.
Last year, over 700,000 health professionals signed an open letter asking the government to restrict the promotion of deadly fossil fuels, but no such action has been taken to address the greatest public health crisis we face as a country.
While the advertising of tobacco has been restricted in Canada since 1989, coal, oil, gas and automotive companies are allowed the near-unrestricted ability to promote their products, which are hazardous to our health, environment and climate.
Burning fossil fuels is the primary cause of climate change. Rising temperatures and extreme heat, wildfires and the expansion of zoonotic diseases are already threatening the lives and well-being of people in Canada, with more than 600 dead in the 2021 B.C. heat dome.
Fossil fuels release toxic pollutants from well to wheel, from the moment they are extracted to when they burn. There is no defence for promoting fossil fuel products in a climate emergency.
Fossil fuel advertising increases demand for the very products that are driving the climate crisis. Gas companies are encouraging consumers to lock themselves into using gas-burning appliances that not only cause outdoor air pollution but release toxic chemicals into the home, causing asthma and other respiratory issues.
Automotive companies continue to market larger and more-polluting vehicles, despite the government's commitment to phase out all gas-powered cars by 2030.
Fossil fuel advertising increases demand for the very products that are driving the climate crisis, write Melissa Lem @Melissa_Lem, Husein Moloo @HMoloo and Samantha Green @SamanthaGreenTO @CAPE_ACME #ClimateCrisis #cdnpoli #WildfireSmoke #Health
To protect their profits, these companies want to keep the world as it is and delay the necessary shift to a clean economy at all costs. Just as the tobacco industry continued to push its addictive products while concealing or attacking evidence of the clear links between smoking and cancer, for decades the fossil fuel industry has borrowed from the tobacco playbook to suppress and distort evidence, even using the same PR firms. False claims of carbon neutrality have served to delay the necessary transition to safer, cleaner energy sources.
While several greenwashing complaints are being investigated, the problem of fossil fuel advertising is systemic and cannot be solved by regulations alone. Successful tobacco control measures such as ad bans and health warnings have led to a sea change in the public perception of smoking and saved countless lives in Canada.
Similar public education and awareness measures applied to fossil fuels can be equally effective in dispelling disinformation and empowering the shift to a carbon-neutral economy that offers myriad health co-benefits.
France has already enacted a ban on advertising of oil and coal, with gas to be added shortly, and municipalities in the Netherlands, Australia and the U.K. have similarly banned ads for highly polluting products.
As physicians who see daily the physical and mental health impacts of fossil pollution and climate change on our patients, we believe this is a decisive, cost-effective and meaningful action the government can take to protect public health today and the future of our children.
The events of the last days — as our cities have been enveloped in smoke and smog and many of us have been forced to shelter indoors — further underscore the pressing need for immediate action to protect public health, combat air pollution and mitigate climate change.
It’s time to get the smoke out of our eyes and treat fossil fuels like the unhealthy commodity that they are.
Dr. Samantha Green is a family physician and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment's (CAPE) president-elect.
Dr. Husein Moloo is a physician and director of planetary health, faculty of medicine at the University of Ottawa.
Dr. Melissa Lem is a family physician, CAPE board president, and clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, faculty of medicine.