Fossil Fuel Advertising Ban: The Cities Taking the Lead
Photo by Christie Cooper via ShutterStock
18 October 2022 – by Heba Hashem
Last updated on 25 October 2022
It’s hard to imagine a time when television commercials and print advertisements freely promoted tobacco. But, about five decades ago, tobacco ads were everywhere. Many featured cartoons to appeal to younger audiences, and some had physicians endorsing cigarettes.
Today, tobacco advertising is banned on television, radio, print media and billboards in most parts of the world. And it all started with the United States’ ban on cigarette advertisements in 1971. The decision didn’t happen overnight. After years of research, experts found a correlation between smoking and respiratory diseases.
As more research emerged showing that tobacco advertising increased consumption, many countries followed suit. In 1971, Singapore became the first country in Asia to ban tobacco advertising. Norway imposed its own ban in 1975, with Australia following suit in 1976 and Canada in 1988. A similar movement is now growing with fossil fuel advertising.
Ban on Fossil Fuel Advertising Gains Momentum
It is well known that burning fossil fuels creates harmful air pollution – like tobacco smoking, which can cause lung disease, heart disease and respiratory disorders. The fact that fossil fuel production is not slowing down only fuels this momentum.
A 2021 study found that more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution. That is 18% of the total global deaths that year. These disturbing findings are largely behind Sydney’s recent commitment to end fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship.
Sydney Takes Climate Action by Banning Fossil Fuel Ads
Australia’s largest city voted in August 2022 to ban any material that promotes coal, oil and gas. Following Sydney, four other councils in Australia passed similar bans (three in Melbourne and the Inner West Council).
Sydney’s deputy mayor Jess Scully put the motion forward and said it was consistent with Australia’s declaration of a climate emergency in 2019.
She was referring to the bushfires that ravaged Australia in 2019-2020. Aggravated by climate change, the natural disaster burnt up to 19 million hectares, killed 33 people and destroyed 3,094 homes.
“I think this is the moment we can draw a line in the sand and say ‘not here’ and ‘no more’,” said Scully. “Because we know that the people of the City of Sydney do want climate action. They do want us to move away from a fossil-fuel-dependent economy. And they know that to do that, we need to get rid of the whitewashing and the self-promotion the sector is doing.”
Sydney’s decision follows an open letter from more than 200 health professionals and organisations demanding fossil ad bans. The letter came from the Australian climate advocacy group Comms Declare, which created the Fossil Ad Ban campaign to achieve tobacco-style bans on fossil fuels.
France Fossil Fuel Advertising Ban Comes with Big Fines
August was a momentous month for the global drive to ban fossil fuel ads. It also saw France prohibit the advertising of fossil fuel products under a new climate law adopted in the same month.
The ban will come into effect next year and could see companies fined up to EUR 100,000 for breaching the rules. It covers all petroleum energy products and energy from the combustion of coal mining. However, natural gas is exempted from the ban until June 2023.
Amsterdam Bans Fossil Fuel Advertising
Elsewhere in Europe, Amsterdam has also banned ads promoting high-carbon products and services in its metro network. Introduced in May 2021, the ban includes fossil-fuelled cars and flights.
Following Amsterdam, five other Dutch cities – the Hague, Utrecht, Leiden, Enschede and Haarlem – passed motions to ban fossil fuel ads. This is a significant development, as the Netherlands is one of the world’s largest consumers of fossil fuels.
Oil Company Ads Whitewashing the Industry
The growing phenomenon of cities banning fossil fuel ads coincides with the increasing social and environmental pressure on oil and gas companies.
Research shows that the production and use of oil and gas now account for over 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases cause global warming by trapping heat that would otherwise escape from the atmosphere. Given the environmental risks of fossil fuel production, transportation and usage, campaigns for advertising bans continue to gain traction.
Is It Ethical to Use Fossil Fuels?
According to Comms Declare, fossil fuel ads falsely portray coal, oil and gas as clean and green. They also cover up the damage being done by polluting industries. The group found that fossil fuel companies spent more than USD 230 million on fossil fuel advertisements and marketing in Australia in 2020-21.
Moreover, in the same way that tobacco advertising increases consumption, fossil fuel advertising creates demand for carbon-intensive goods and services.
Canadian Doctors Call for a Ban on Fossil Fuel Ads
In Canada, doctors recently released an open letter to the government demanding a comprehensive ban on fossil fuel advertising.
The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) wrote the letter on behalf of 34 health organisations representing 700,000 health workers across the country.
Published in June 2022, the letter kicked off the Fossil Fuel Ads Make Us Sick campaign. It echoed the successful public health campaigns that helped ban cigarette advertising.
According to CAPE, fossil-fuel air pollution causes up to 34,000 deaths in Canada annually. This trend can be reversed by drawing on the success of tobacco regulation. For instance, about 50% of Canadian adults smoked in 1965, which dropped to 15.1% in 2017.
Indeed, climate action does not always have to come in the form of new renewable energy capacity. Attitudes towards fossil fuels must also change. Thus, actions taken by cities and countries to end fossil fuel promotion will greatly contribute to solving the climate crisis.