Fossil Fuel Advertising Gets Its Tobacco Moment
It was a grievous assault on tobacco-makers—until it wasn’t—when they were banned from pitching products that kill people when used as directed. In the end, the culture changed. Now it's oil's turn.
Canadian doctors seem to have touched a raw nerve this week with their support for a private member’s bill calling for a ban on fossil fuel advertising.
We should all be lining up to thank MP Charlie Angus (NDP, Timmins-James Bay) and the small but mighty Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) for what will likely be the most important public health intervention many of us will receive this year.
The news was not well received by the fossil fuel lobby, or the network of alt-right publications that reliably carry its message. You can expect that reaction to amp up in the weeks ahead.
But, really—if they’re all as grievously offended as they claim to be, that’s just one measure that Angus is onto something good with Bill C-372, the Fossil Fuel Advertising Act. And that CAPE is doing the right thing by supporting the bill.
Truth In Advertising
At its most basic, Bill C-372 is about truth in advertising.
After seeing the fossil lobby in general, the Pathways Alliance in particular, shamelessly and erroneously promote expanded fossil fuel extraction as a path to bringing Canada’s climate pollution to net-zero, the bill sets out to enforce some principles that most of us should have learned in kindergarten.
That we’re supposed to tell the truth.
That we aren’t supposed to hurt other people.
That we’re allowed to make mistakes, but when we do we own up, make it right, learn from the experience, and do better next time.
None of this is rocket science. So it’s a bit astonishing, and on one level astonishingly sad, that it took an opposition MP stepping in to try and armtwist an industry that is so smart technologically to understand something so basic about how people get along with each other.
(Oh, wait…unless maybe they do understand and don’t want us all getting along? Discuss—the comment box is open.)
At a news conference last week, Angus connected the dots from Bill C-372 to the tobacco advertising bans of the 1990s, arguing that today’s fossil industry has shifted its “propaganda” by claiming its products are clean and part of the solution to climate change. "That's like Benson and Hedges telling you they can help end lung cancer," he said. "This is because Big Oil has always relied on the Big Tobacco playbook of delay and disinformation."
CAPE’s director of health and economic policy, Leah Temper, took aim at advertising claims by the Pathways Alliance, speaking for the country’s six biggest oil sands producers, that its members are on track to achieving net-zero emissions. "This is false,” she said. “Oil can never be net-zero because 80% of the life cycle emissions are released when oil is burned.”
CAPE has been running its own ad campaign on the health impacts of oil and gas, and earlier lodged a deceptive advertising complaint against the gas industry with the federal Competition Bureau. Now, the doctors are backing a private member’s bill that would have real teeth if it got through the Parliamentary process.
Actions Have Consequences
The provisions in the Fossil Fuel Advertising Act are pretty much what you should expect any group of legislators to do to control misinformation about a noxious, dangerous substance and protect the health of their constituents.
“The need for an advertising ban is clear and urgent: every year fossil fuel pollution is directly linked to 34,000 premature deaths in Canada and over eight million globally,” CAPE said in a release Tuesday. “Many more Canadians will also suffer negative health impacts—including conditions such as cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular and respiratory disorders as a result of toxic emissions.”
So the bill “uses the Health Act in the same way that Canada used it to effectively address misleading advertising from Big Tobacco, lowering adult smoking rates from 50% to under 15% today and saving countless lives,” the Association wrote. “The ban proved a cost-effective way for the government to have a remarkable impact on the problem.”
The bill prohibits promotion of any fossil fuel product or brand in a way “that is likely to influence and shape attitudes, beliefs and behaviours about the product or service.”
It includes a reminder that no one who ever graduated kindergarten should need—that it’s wrong, and would now be a crime, to produce “false, misleading, or deceptive” advertising about fossil fuels. Including any messaging “that is likely to create an erroneous impression about the characteristics, health or environmental effects or health or environmental hazards of the fossil fuel, its production or the emissions that result from its production or use.”
It bans messaging that claims one fossil fuel is less harmful than others (ahem, natural gas), or that a fossil fuel or its production process “would lead to positive outcomes in relation to the environment, the health of Canadians, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples or the Canadian or global economy.”
The bill sets fines of up to $1 million for fossil fuel promotions or $1.5 million for false advertising, plus up to two years in prison.
All of which amounts to summarizing several mountains of evidence on the impacts of climate change and the role of fossil fuels in driving it, then filtering it all through one more lesson we all should have picked up in kindergarten, or not long after: that our actions have consequences, and if those consequences cause harm, we take responsibility.
The pushback on Angus’ announcement was quick and predictable.
"Advertising is one way we can reach Canadians to ensure they are informed of the progress their oil and natural gas industry is making on these critical matters," declared Lisa Baiton, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).
Presumably, that would mean informing Canadians that the fossil industry has acknowledged its inability to hit a reasonable deadline for reducing emissions, and has no real intention of trying without lavish government subsidies?
The Canadian Association of Energy Contractors (CAOEC) “is disappointed by the lack of knowledge surrounding the energy issues that Canadians and many countries face,” said President and CEO Mark Scholz. “Canada is the best in the world at producing responsible and environmentally sustainable oil and gas, and no legislation can muzzle the truth.”
So I guess Scholz would agree that we should all be more informed about the dire health and climate risks that Angus and CAPE are working so hard to bring to our attention?
If the fossil lobby was trying to model the behaviour and messaging that made C-372 necessary, all I can say is: mission accomplished.
But none of that showed up in the PR and disinformation that began to flow within hours of Angus’ media conference. At least two online publications picked up CAOEC’s statement verbatim, uncritically and with no countering arguments, essentially delivering propaganda in the guise of news. One alt-right publication headlined that the bill “would jail people for speaking positively about oil and gas”. Another claimed the law “would effectively destroy all energy media, including this site,” calling it “a direct assault on free speech that equates fossil fuels to tobacco.”
Let’s just be clear that Energy Mix Productions does not feel even remotely threatened by this bill, and no legitimate energy news outlet should.
On social media, Angus said the National Post also picked up the line about “an outrageous new bill to jail ordinary citizens who speak up for oil and gas.” That was a “wild story”, but “not true”, the MP wrote. “Bill #C372 is limited to corporate campaigns making false claims about the ‘benefits’ of burning fossil fuels as the planet burns.”
And indeed, the bill itself describes the “entities” to which it applies as “a corporation, firm, partnership, association, society, trust or other organization, whether incorporated or not.” It’s about targeting a serious but solvable structural problem, brought to us by a specific group of businesses and their trade associations. Not individuals.
How to Shift a Culture
You can see why this bill is so important to CAPP, CAOEC, and the legions of trollbots and “grassroot” astroturf groups that will no doubt coalesce around it.
They’re objecting because, in the unlikely event that this private member’s bill actually becomes law, it’ll work.
The fossil lobby understands that advertising shifts cultures by shaping beliefs and attitudes—that’s why they invest in advertising. They know full well that the sooner Canada’s petro-state culture fully embraces both the necessity and the massive opportunities in a rapid transition off carbon, the faster the industry and its mostly foreign investors lose out.
Ken Johnson, a retired epidemiologist now active in several front-line climate groups, was working at Health Canada in the early 2000s when the legendary Dr. Don Wigle successfully identified second-hand smoke as a health hazard even worse than the assorted toxins and carcinogens that smokers actually inhaled. Wigle’s research was part of a wider public health effort that included warning labels on cigarette packaging, a ban on smoking in public places, increasingly severe restrictions on point-of-sale promotions—and an ad ban that was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court in June, 2007.
Before all of those restrictions went into force, “we let this noxious thing be available in the corner store and advertised, even to children, with no restrictions,” Johnson recalled. “The smoke-free laws were the most effective public health measure that has ever happened, and it happened so quickly and with such complete acceptance. If you talk to kids, they look at you in disbelief that it was ever possible to smoke in a public place.”
The focus on second-hand smoke “also helped a lot of people stop smoking,” he added, because “if you worked in a bar or a restaurant, the chances of you ever quitting when you were constantly being re-exposed were close to zero.”
Many years ago, I briefly worked for an organization that was trying to shift attitudes around drunk driving. Their communications manager told me he would only declare victory when the issue moved from “content” to “context”—when it was no longer a discussion topic or a talking point, because enough people had absorbed it to make it a cultural norm.
Decades later, that shift has happened. It took far too long—just like the tobacco ban, and just like the shift out of fossil fuels—and in each case, lives, health, and livelihoods were on the line.
That’s why an ad ban matters, and it’s why the fossil lobby is so over-the-top scared of Charlie Angus’ bill. It may not pass in this session of Parliament—in fact, I would venture to guess it probably won’t. But the idea is in circulation, the arguments are sound, and just like the tobacco ad ban, it isn’t going to away.
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Mitchell Beer traces his background in renewable energy and energy efficiency back to 1977, in climate change to 1997. Now he and the rest of the Energy Mix team scan 1,200 news headlines a week to pull together The Energy Mix, The Energy Mix Weekender, and our weekly feature digests, Cities & Communities and Heat & Power.
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