Like we did for tobacco, we must ban false fossil fuel ads

Seth Klein
NDP MP Charlie Angus and members of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment at a Feb. 6 press conference on Angus's new private member's bill that would crack down on fossil fuel advertising. Photo by: Natasha Bulowski

Feb. 13, 2024

It seems NDP MP Charlie Angus has hit a nerve.

Last week, heeding the call of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), Angus tabled a private member’s bill in the House of Commons to prohibit fossil fuel advertising. As doctors and other health professionals across the country have been saying, “Fossil fuel ads make us sick.”

It’s long been my view that if you are looking for a shorthand heuristic to judge the strength and merit of a climate policy, look at the reaction of the fossil fuel companies. If a climate policy is announced and fossil fuel companies are on the stage claiming they can get behind the plan, then friends, you do not have a climate emergency plan. If on the other hand, the oil and gas companies are protesting loudly and you can see panic in their eyes, then you have a plan with real potential impact.

By that measure, Angus has introduced a winner.

Building on the legacy of laws to prohibit tobacco advertising, the proposed law, C-372, An Act Respecting Fossil Fuel Advertising, seeks “to prevent the public from being deceived or misled with respect to the environmental and health hazards of using fossil fuels” and would prohibit fossil fuel companies from paid promotion of their products. More specifically, the bill takes aim at fossil fuel ads that make claims of environmental or economic benefits.

The reaction to Angus’s bill from Big Oil’s political and media defenders has been swift and hysterical. The online rage machine was quickly ignited by the likes of Canada Proud, Canada Action (the oil and gas industry’s astroturf advocacy group), Ezra Levant and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith. The Sun chain’s Brian Lilley gasped, “If you speak up in favour of the fossil fuel industry, NDP MP Charlie Angus wants to send you to jail.” National Post columnists, in a fit of performative pearl-clutching, declared, “NDP bill would prescribe jail terms for speaking well of fossil fuels,” while another decried, “The NDP’s loathsome pitch to criminalize climate dissent.”

If that all sounds incredible to you, it’s because, well, it is.

The proposed act was prepared by and legally vetted by parliamentary counsel. The bill’s focus is on paid advertising by the fossil fuel industry and its lobby associations. Section 5 of the bill specifically exempts “an opinion, commentary or report in respect of fossil fuels.” The bill does contain some tough penalties — large fines and possible imprisonment — for contravening its provisions, and its detractors lock on to the bill’s use of the term “person,” but this is a legal quirk. The bill makes clear that its target is not individuals but corporations that are “a producer, a retailer or an entity that has as one of its purposes to promote fossil fuels.” The individuals subject to the penalties are those who are a “director or officer of the corporation who authorized or acquiesced in the offence.” The bill further exempts signage at the “point of sale,” meaning gas stations can still have their big signs with posted prices.

Angus’s bill is actually closely modelled on the Tobacco Act, which successfully controlled tobacco advertising in the face of that public health crisis. But I don’t hear any of those denouncing Angus’s bill suggesting we should not prohibit cigarette ads — there is rightly a societal consensus on that score.

A bill put forward by #NDP MP Charlie Angus proposes a ban on fossil fuel advertising along the lines of the prohibitions on #cigarette ads. @SethDKlein writes for @NatObserver #FossilFuels #advertising #ClimateEmergency - Twitter

National Post columnists seem particularly exercised that the bill would prohibit making claims that one fossil fuel, such as “natural” gas, burns cleaner than another (namely oil). Do they think tobacco companies should be allowed to advertise purportedly “mild” cigarettes and vaping as preferable to conventional cigarettes?

Advertising works. That’s why the Pathways Alliance, the Canadian Gas Association, the LNG Alliance and dozens of oil and gas companies have poured so much money into bombarding us with false and misleading claims about their supposed climate commitments. And sadly, much of the public has come to believe their false and misleading claims that we can expand oil and gas production while meeting society’s “net-zero” goals. These ubiquitous ads have plastered our public transit and clogged our media feeds. They are causing harm and distorting the public discourse as we endeavour to confront the climate crisis.

Let’s not lose sight of the heart of the matter here. We face a planetary climate emergency. Our children’s future is under severe threat. The burning of fossil fuels is resulting in the escalation of extreme weather events. Pollution from oil and gas poses a deadly risk to our health; as CAPE notes, every year, fossil fuel pollution is directly linked to 34,000 premature deaths in Canada and over eight million globally. Simply put, we have to phase out the use of fossil fuels. In that context, the continued presence of fossil fuel ads sends a confusing and contradictory message — are we treating this as the emergency that it is or not?

Angus’s proposed law is already doing a great service — sparking a needed conversation about the role of fossil fuel companies in perpetuating the climate crisis and questioning the social licence we have extended to these nefarious corporations for far too long.

In the wake of Bill C-372’s introduction, Angus and his office have been at the receiving end of a firehose of vitriol from the oil and gas industry’s acolytes. But Angus takes it all in stride.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was campaigning for re-election on his New Deal platform during the depths of the Depression in 1936, he spoke of the corporate interests that were united against him and his policies, and famously replied, “I welcome their hatred.” That’s the spirit Angus brings to this fight. Good on him.

As for the rest of us? Those who understand the severity and urgency of the climate crisis should get behind this bill, defend it and endeavour to see it passed. The regulation of tobacco advertising was a long, tough fight led by health professionals who understood what was at stake. The cigarette companies put up legal roadblocks and peddled misinformation for decades as they sought to stave off society’s efforts to restrict their promotion of an addictive and deadly product. The parallels are stark. Except now, we don’t have time for a multi-decade legal battle. This new bill is long overdue.

[Top photo: NDP MP Charlie Angus and members of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment at a Feb. 6 press conference on Angus's new private member's bill that would crack down on fossil fuel advertising. Photo by: Natasha Bulowski]