Opinion: We banned tobacco ads; why not those for fossil fuels?

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My father was a heavy smoker. Smoke-laden air was normal in my house. If we were lucky, he’d crack a window in the car. But it wasn’t just my house; ashtrays were freely available in restaurants. People smoked on airplanes. Du Maurier sponsored the big Montreal tennis open. Smoking was normal. Everyone did it.

My dad was livid when they banned smoking in public spaces. When they banned ads and then put graphic warning labels on cigarette packs, I would hide his cigarettes to protect his health. This was not enough to counter his addiction. He died in my 20s before any of his future grandchildren could be born.

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Restricting tobacco ads and then banning smoking from public spaces has shifted society. Prior to these restrictions, roughly 50 per cent of Canadians were regular smokers; as of 2022, it is less than 12 per cent. Smoking is no longer normalized. I had to explain to my children when they were very small what those white sticks they would find on the ground are. They had never seen anyone they knew with a cigarette.

Despite no exposure to smoking, my son started showing signs of asthma before he turned two. At the time, we lived on St-Urbain St. in the densely populated Plateau neighbourhood where so many cars pass through on their way downtown. My son was not alone in developing asthma; in a study published in The Lancet in 2019, of 194 countries assessed, Canada had the 34th highest pediatric asthma incidence rate — the highest among high-income nations.

The burning of fossil fuels has direct impacts on air quality and our health, and it is also fuelling the climate crisis. Fossil-fuelled climate change led to more than 18 million hectares being consumed by fires in Canada last year, marking the most severe fire season on record. The impacts of forest fires and extreme weather events are already disproportionately affecting Indigenous Peoples and other marginalized communities and families.

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Yet the industries causing this destruction continue to promote their products as desirable and safe. It’s been reported that they have known since 1954 of the devastating impacts their emissions would have on planetary health — just like the tobacco industry knew about the health impacts of smoking.

Pathways Alliance, a consortium of the biggest oilsands companies (currently under investigation by the Competition Bureau for greenwashing), has promoted their “net zero” initiatives on Bixi stands and on Air Canada flights. Meanwhile, Energir has advertised for “renewable natural gas” on radio and on the STM, charging their customers more for said “renewable” product but providing them with the same product as everyone else, a Radio-Canada investigation revealed.

France banned fossil fuel advertising in 2022 and will ban advertising by high-emitting vehicles in the near future. This month, NDP MP Charlie Angus introduced Bill C-372, “An Act respecting fossil fuel advertising” in the House of Commons. This was modelled on the act targeting tobacco advertisements. Reaction was swift and extreme with overblown claims that ordinary citizens would be jailed for sharing positive opinions about oil and gas. Hopefully, common sense will prevail.

Last summer, my kids spent their first week of day camp inside because of smoke from forest fires. The next week, they ran through a torrential downpour under a tornado warning as the streets became rivers. Is this their new normal?

We need to stop the normalization of our society’s dependence on fossil fuels. A ban on fossil fuel ads would put an end to greenwashing and send a clear message that we are seeking a new normal, one that prioritizes the health of future generations over the profit of corporations for the sake of the planet’s health and for our kids.

Jennifer Smith lives in Mile End and is a co-founder of For Our Kids Montreal and a member of Mères au front — networks of parents taking climate action.

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