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Health Experts Say Cigarette-Like Warnings Needed for Gas

Often times when the existential threat of climate change is described, it’s done so in a way that focuses on its broader impacts on the environment, and the subsequent suffering those impacts will inflict on humanity as a whole. But personalizing the threat of climate change may be a far more effective way to encourage people to change their carbon-emitting ways. Which is why a health expert from the UK, and his colleagues, are calling for graphic, cigarette pack-like warning labels at points of sale for fossil fuels.

The health expert, Mike Gill, a former Regional Director of Public Health in southeast England, discussed the idea in an article recently published in the The British Medical Journal (the BMJ). The BMJ is a long-established journal in the UK, which aims to “[advance] healthcare worldwide by sharing knowledge and expertise.” The BMJ also publishes 70 other specialty journals.

Gill’s article is part of a special series of content being published by the BMJ on the topic of “Health in the Anthropocene.” The anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, in particular its impact on the climate. This particular series has the goal of alerting people to the dangers posed by this epoch (i.e. ourselves).

According to Gill, et al., the warning labels should go at points of sale where large purchases of fossil energy take place; e.g. when paying at gas stations, for energy bills, or even for airline tickets. The authors say that the labels “should state clearly that continuing to burn fossil fuels worsens the climate emergency, with major projected health impacts increasing over time.” They go on to say that graphic warnings on cigarette packs, which are now required by 118 countries, have helped to mitigate the prevalence of smoking, and that similar warnings could be just as effective when it comes to use of fossil fuels.

“Smoking is no longer viewed as a normal lifestyle choice, but as an addiction which harms the individual and those around them through exposure to second-hand smoke,” the authors say in the article. They liken smoking to the use of fossil fuels as the latter “also harms others through ambient air pollution that accounts for about 3.5 million premature deaths per year, as well as through climate change, which increasingly threatens the health of current and future generations.”

Health Experts Say Cigarette-Like Warnings Needed for Gas_1

Some of the graphic cigarette packet warnings used in the UK. Andy Bullock

Although these kinds of labels obviously wouldn’t directly limit the amount of CO2 and NO2 in the atmosphere like say, the use of electric vehicles do, the authors say that it would still be a cost-effective method that would be relatively easy to scale and implement. Plus, many governments already require warning signs at points of sale for fossil fuels, which gives some precedent—even though the authors say that these existing labels are insufficient because they don’t explicitly state health risks posed to individuals.

Ultimately, the authors seem optimistic that the idea could work, but are also cognizant of the challenges posed by entrenched government and corporate interests. The article ends by noting that when the COVID-19 pandemic eventually passes, labeling like this could help reduce the risk of a major increase in greenhouse gas emissions when the economy rebounds. And there’s no question that rebound is coming, and is going to spew unholy amounts of pollution into our atmosphere.

What do you think about the idea of displaying graphic, cigarette box-type labels at points of sale for fossil fuels? Would these images have any effect on expediting the transition to renewable energy sources, or should we just continue to focus on next-generation technologies? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Feature image: Mike Mozart / Gael Varoquaux