This Jan. 26, 2009 file photo shows the exhaust pipe of a car in Erfurt, Germany. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Jens Meyer, file

This Jan. 26, 2009 file photo shows the exhaust pipe of a car in Erfurt, Germany. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Jens Meyer, file

OUR PLANETARY HEALTH: Healthcare professionals call for an end to fossil fuel industry’s greenwashing techniques

Megan Tomlinson

Special to the Record

The tobacco industry became aware of significant health consequences related to cigarette smoking in the middle of the 20th century. Efforts ensued to negate the science via disinformation campaigns. For decades, tobacco companies ran manipulative marketing campaigns aimed at minimizing the serious health risks and addictive nature of nicotine.

On a similar course, scientists from the oil and gas giant, Exxon Mobil, alerted executives to the global warming projections related to the burning of fossil fuels in 1977. Decades of disinformation followed, and climate science was discredited. The wool was pulled over the eyes of the public.

The production and combustion of fossil fuels represent a significant public health concern. For example, one in seven premature deaths in Canada is related to fossil fuel air pollution. In homes with natural gas stoves, people live at risk of elevated exposure to nitrogen dioxide, a highly poisonous gas known to decrease lung function, worsen asthma and increase susceptibility to airborne allergens. There is also growing evidence linking neurodevelopmental conditions and neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia, to traffic-related air pollution.

The health impacts related to burning fossil fuels is far-reaching. Climate change is recognized as the biggest human health threat of the 21st century. In B.C., we have witnessed deaths from extreme heat and displacement of fellow citizens due to flooding. We know these extreme weather events will build with intensity if we continue as a fossil fuel-dependent species. Seniors, youth, Indigenous populations, and people living in socioeconomic disparity will continue to be disproportionately impacted.

The veil is lifting. We are collectively waking to the links between the burning of fossil fuels, climate change and human health. However, marketing techniques like that of the tobacco industry are at play. Misleading environmental claims, known as greenwashing, is far too common whereby companies advertise virtuous endeavours to pursue clean energy while investing significantly more money into fossil fuel exploration and extraction. In response, thousands of healthcare professionals across Canada have called on the Canadian government to create a regulatory response to snuff out greenwashing and mandate the disclosure of health risks associated with fossil fuel products.

Pressure on the tobacco industry finally led to restrictions on advertising, however, the marketing strategy evolved to sponsorship. Many of us will remember a time when Vancouver hosted the Du Maurier International Jazz festival or Players cigarettes were ubiquitous in motorsports. After decades of insidious marketing techniques, tobacco sponsorship was banned in 2003 under Canada’s Tobacco Act.

In a similar course, sponsorship is an influential tactic utilized by the oil and gas industry. The Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) convention held this September was sponsored by the oil and gas lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers along with other fossil fuel companies. Municipal decision-makers deliberated over a motion to endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, calling for the rejection of any further fossil fuel exploration or expansion. Unfortunately, the motion to stand with cities such as Paris, London and Vancouver was defeated.

There are many reasons we find ourselves in a planetary health crisis. One could argue we are facing a cataclysmic and existential situation (known as climate change) because of human greed and colonialism. At the same time, it is broadly accepted that fossil fuels are the primary contributor to climate change. The tobacco industry went to great lengths to deflect responsibility away from their products for decades. How long will we allow the oil and gas industry to follow along the same path?

Megan Tomlinson, R.N. is a member of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment

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