Medical groups call for ban on fossil fuel advertising

A coalition representing more than 700,000 Canadian healthcare professionals is calling on the federal government to impose a “tobacco-style ban” on fossil fuel advertising, a broad swathe that includes ads for gasoline, fossil fuel utilities, and gas-powered vehicles.

The “Fossil Fuel Ads Make Us Sick” initiative is being led by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) with the support of more than 35 health, environmental, creative, cultural, and parent organizations, including the College of Family Physicians of Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment.

“We see the continued unregulated advertising of the fossil fuel industry as a public health crisis,” states the group on its information website, “We strongly believe that Canadians deserve no less than complete and truthful information about the harms of these products.”

In an open letter last week, the group said that the production and consumption of fossil fuels represents “a national public health problem of substantial and pressing concern,” contributing to as many as 34,000 deaths a year. “Just like the tobacco industry, fossil fuel companies are still lying to us about the known dangers of their products,” it said.

It identifies advertising as a major culprit, saying it creates increased consumer demand for carbon intensive goods and services like gas-guzzling SUVs; uses tactics like greenwashing to present misinformation that obstructs meaningful action on climate change; and fails to disclose known health and environmental hazards caused by fossil fuels.

The group is calling for:

  • A comprehensive ban on advertising by fossil fuel industries, products, and services (such as gasoline and gas utilities) and internal combustion engine vehicles;
  • A robust regulatory response to address misleading environmental claims by fossil fuel companies;
  • Regulations mandating the disclosure of the health and environmental risks associated with fossil fuel production and use.

The open letter cited a report by the environmental group Équiterre which found that nearly 80% of auto advertising in Canada promotes light trucks—a group that includes SUVs, crossovers, pick-up trucks and vans—which have higher greenhouse gas emissions than standard vehicles.

While Canada plans to eliminate the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035, CAPE said that advertising continues to drive demand for these products. “We have committed to destroying demand for gas powered cars, yet these ads do the opposite and stoke it,” the group said.

CAPE noted that Canada has long been a leader in tobacco control through various levers such as taxation, comprehensive ad bans, actions against false or misleading claims by tobacco companies, as well as public information and education campaigns including mandatory labelling.

Those efforts are proof of the government’s power to bring about positive change when there is conclusive scientific evidence of a major public health threat, said CAPE, noting that the percentage of Canadian adults that smoke has plunged from 50% in 1965 to 15% today.

It said that the government has only used some of the tools it wielded in the fight against tobacco to mitigate climate change. “[N]ow is the time to step up and lead with bold restrictions on the promotion and marketing of harmful fossil fuel products and industries that pollute the air, threaten Canadians’ health, and represent the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada,” it said.

Jay Averill, a spokesperson with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), said that the organization believes in the importance of transparency, and has published reports on “emissions and innovation performance” along with others on environmental, social and governance issues. “Advertising is one way we can reach Canadians to ensure they are informed of the progress their natural gas and oil industry is making on these critical issues,” he said.

CAPE’s campaign is part of a broader global effort that has put fossil fuel advertising in the crosshairs, leading to successful efforts to curb its reach. Amsterdam, for example, now prohibits advertising for products that use fossil fuels from appearing in its 40 subway stations.

Last year, Greenpeace launched the European Citizens Initiative calling on the European Commission to ban fossil fuel advertising in the European Union. It said that fossil fuel companies, automakers, airlines and maritime companies use advertising and sponsorship as a “smokescreen” to take attention away from their “climate-wrecking” business while their activities “plunge us deeper into the climate and human rights crises.”

There is evidence to suggest that all levels of government are responsive to the pressure being exerted by these groups.

The French government, for example, recently ordered that the country’s car ads must contain a caveat encouraging consumers to walk, cycle or take public transit wherever possible. Each car ad is required to feature at least one of three messages: “For short journeys, walk or cycle”, “Consider carpooling” and “Take public transport.”

British newspaper The Guardian stopped accepting ads from fossil fuel companies in 2020 as part of its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and increase reporting on what it called the “climate emergency.” The newspaper acknowledged that the decision would result in a financial hit, but said, “[W]e believe building a more purposeful organisation and remaining financially sustainable have to go hand in hand.”

And an ad industry group called Clean Creatives is inviting agencies, creatives, and strategists to sign a pledge committing to refuse any future contracts with fossil fuel companies, trade associations, or front groups. The group claims that more than 700 creatives and 250 agencies around the world have signed the pledge.

Chris Powell