Climate-damaging products should come with smoking-style warnings

Climate-damaging products should come with smoking-style warnings

Cigarette packets with grisly warnings of the consequences of smoking are intended to deter smokers. Now a group of public health experts says similar warnings should appear on high-carbon products, from airline tickets and energy bills to petrol pumps, to show consumers the health impacts of the climate crisis.

Warning labels would be a cheap but potentially highly effective intervention that would make consumers aware of the impact of their purchases on climate breakdown, according to the experts.

“Warning labels connect the abstract threat of the climate emergency with the use of fossil fuels in the here and now, drawing attention to the true cost of fossil fuels pictorially or quantitatively,” they write in the British Medical Journal. “They sensitise people to the consequences of their actions, representing nudges designed to encourage users to choose alternatives to fossil fuels, thus increasing demand for zero-carbon renewable energy.”

A Canadian anti-smoking warning

In many countries smoking labels have grown more graphic in recent years, with pictures of diseased lungs, children breathing smoke and blunt messages covering most of the packaging, in place of the anodyne “smoking can damage your health” warnings of the past.

High-carbon health labels could be similarly graphic, especially if they highlighted the damage to health from air pollution caused by fossil fuels, such as the exhaust gases from diesel vehicles. They could include pictures of damaged lungs, or highlight severe weather such as flooding, or show the bodies of people who have died because of heatwaves, said Mike Gill, a former regional director of public health for south-east England, and a co-author of the letter.

In some countries, messages could include the increased spread of dengue fever and malaria driven by global heating, while there should also be scope to warn about the effects of environmental degradation caused by climate breakdown, and the harmful effects on water and food supplies, he added.

“The messages, including their pictorial element, should be stark and arresting, and they should relate directly to those effects known directly to affect health, such as air pollution causing heart disease and asthma,” he told the Guardian. “The immediate task will be to get some really arresting designs produced, such as we already have for cigarette packet warnings.”

Labels warning of the damage to health would make more of an impression on people than messages focusing on the impact on the environment, wrote the experts, who included four professors of environmental health in the UK, US and India.

Smoking labels have been accompanied by stricter bans on advertising, and the authors of the BMJ article want to see similar restrictions on advertising by fossil fuel companies, including better policing of misleading claims about investments in renewable energy that represent a minority of a fossil fuel company’s portfolio.

Putting labels on high-carbon goods and services would require government intervention, and the authors hope that the UK could lead the way as hosts of the crunch UN climate talks, Cop26, scheduled for Glasgow this November.

The experts argue that the warnings could be swiftly adopted so as to “reduce the risk of a rapid rebound in greenhouse gas emissions as the economy expands” after the coronavirus crisis.

Green campaigners have also made similar suggestions on putting warning labels on high-carbon goods and services. Previous attempts to put labels on goods that showed the amount of carbon that went into their production petered out, however, as consumers found them hard to understand.

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