Smoking and climate change


in Law, Politics, Science, The environment

Tristan keeps telling me that ozone depletion and acid rain are poor comparisons for climate change. Yes, they were major environmental problems that were identified scientifically, and then dealt with legislatively. But addressing them only really involved a small number of organizations, and processes that could be fairly readily replaced. Addressing the issues didn’t require much social or political change.

That’s fair enough, but perhaps there is an alternative comparison that is useful: smoking. Watching Mad Men constantly reminds me of how much of a transformation there has been in the public attitude toward smoking in the past few decades. While part of that was certainly driven by personal fear (smoking will kill you personally, climate change will not), the transition also involved moral arguments about the effects of secondhand smoke on unconsenting others. And it involved government imposing increasingly harsh regulations on an industry that was highly profitable, powerful, and fundamentally opposed to having its products restrained by law.

Perhaps growing awareness of the harms fossil fuels impose on others – including those in future generations – could help to drive a similar cultural shift. We have promising alternatives to fossil fuels, but our political system is still unwilling to take on the industries that want to keep us reliant on them. Perhaps smoking suggests that could change.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

. October 5, 2010 at 10:17 pm
Tristan October 6, 2010 at 2:38 am

One thing with which I’ll agree is that you could certain use more posts beginning with, “Tristan keeps telling me…”!

Tristan October 6, 2010 at 2:50 am

But more generally, I don’t understand why smoking, which benefited only the cigarette industry, is a better comparison to climate change than ozone depletion or acid rain.

I mean – there are some similarities certainly. The long attempt at discrediting the science of smoking is in some ways similar to the climate denial campaigns. Also, there are superficial similarities between the effects of second hand smoke and the effects of carbon emissions on future generations. I say “superficial” because the reality of the ethical interaction is very different – in one case you are poisoning your neighbour, and in another, you are poisoning people you are far away from in both space and time.

Another problem is we certainly have not dealt with smoking – even though it was just one industry. A huge amount of people still smoke, which is hugely profitable for that industry, and hugely detrimental to society (and society bears the social costs – which go far beyond the measurable health care costs). And, I’m sure many people still die of second hand smoke related diseases, even though the conditions have significantly improved (although now common, I don’t think smoking bans in bars are universal ).

I think it’s wrong to think dealing with climate change has so much to do with “public attitude”. Public opinion is largely irrelevant – public opinion in the US has advocated Canadian style health care since 1980 – and yet the issue remained politically impossible until GM asked for it.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible that significant climate change regulations could not be passed within capitalism. What I’m saying is that we need to look at the real sources of power, and what their rational (which has nothing to do with long term interests) interests are. And if the rational interests of power contradict the survival of the species, we need to figure out how to make some changes. And at the most basic level, I think those changes are completely compatible with traditional liberalism, i.e. Rawls’ conception of capitalism, which I wrote about here:

Roughly, the idea is that capitalism should be ok, so long as capital does not have any significant political power. And, we should think about what that would look like – imagine if we made decisions, political decisions, based on what the people wanted – not based on what the business lobby wanted – what kind of policies would our government pursue? And imagine if what people wanted were a product of decisions they made about what values they wanted to live their lives by, rather than constantly produced through the marketing which the show MadMen apparently depicts so well?

I mean, seriously – if all the nuclear states had elections to determine whether they would – on the condition that the other states also agreed to – dismantle all their nuclear arms – what would happen? I think it’s obvious the people would decide to disarm. With climate change, it’s more complicated – but I think people, real people with values and kids, have a better chance at desiring a future where humans still exist, than business leaders who will be fired if they fail to make the best return given current conditions. I.e. will be fired if they divest from the oil sands.

Milan October 6, 2010 at 9:32 am

Another problem is we certainly have not dealt with smoking – even though it was just one industry. A huge amount of people still smoke

True. In some ways, tobacco is even worse than fossil fuels, because it is extremely addictive and has no substitutes. That’s why people are willing to huddle out in the miserable cold to smoke, now that it has been banned from almost all indoor public spaces.

Despite the rhetoric politicians use, fossil fuels aren’t really addictive. They are hard to get away from because they are cheap and convenient, but that advantage will diminish as: (a) they become more scarce and (b) alternatives become more widely used. There are lots of post-carbon technologies that can form synergies. A better grid can help balance load between intermittent renewable sources. It can also help to reduce demand at peak times. Electric vehicles can serve as an energy storage system. And the larger the share of renewables in our energy mix, the more incentive there will be for everyone to design their energy use in ways that are compatible.

While tobacco is lingering on, decades after the health consequences have been demonstrated scientifically, there is reason to hope the abandonment of fossil fuels will be more total.

Milan October 6, 2010 at 9:37 am

And, we should think about what that would look like – imagine if we made decisions, political decisions, based on what the people wanted – not based on what the business lobby wanted – what kind of policies would our government pursue?

Responding to this is more suited to this thread.

Milan October 6, 2010 at 9:48 am

Obviously, no one historical parallel captures the climate change situation entirely. That being said, I do think the smoking example is valuable for at least two reasons:

  1. It shows a powerful industry getting gradually pushed back by integrity among scientists and governments
  2. It demonstrates major social changes, in terms of what people see as normal and acceptable

It shows how not all forms of social or environmental progress have been technocratic fixes happening in the background. Rather, there are instances in which scientific certainty has translated into massive cultural change.

Mad Men actually makes that point in a few other ways. While a lot of the media coverage focus on it as a piece of glamorous nostalgia, I think it is actually socially progressive. That is because of how it subtly demonstrates how real ethical progress has been made since the 1950s, particularly when it comes to the role of women in society. Recent decades have seen a kind of backlash against political correctness, but the show does a good job of reminding people of how unpleasant the disempowerment of women – as well as sexual harassment – really were. That is a kind of antidote against cultural relativism.

Tristan October 7, 2010 at 12:57 am

“Despite the rhetoric politicians use, fossil fuels aren’t really addictive. They are hard to get away from because they are cheap and convenient, but that advantage will diminish as: (a) they become more scarce and (b) alternatives become more widely used. ”

We should think extremely carefully about what “addiction” means, especially when the survival of the species is at stake. Addiction does mean “you can not stop doing it”. It means that, from your distorted perspective, cutting yourself off is worse than continuing to use it. And I think this sense of “addiction” does a good job of describing the reasons why the business parties largely support climate denial campaigns.

Milan October 7, 2010 at 4:25 pm

That is an interesting definition of addiction, and one that does seem to connect with the reasons why people (including intelligent ones who are concerned about climate change) are fearful about abandoning fossil fuels.

Overcoming that fear seems likely to require two things: making people more acutely aware with all the harms associated with maintaining the status quo and convincing people that a renewably-based economy really is possible.

Tristan October 7, 2010 at 4:45 pm


Milan October 7, 2010 at 4:55 pm

One phenomenon that paralyzes people, when it comes to dealing with climate change, is their inability to imagine the world changing in any major way whatsoever. That intuitive sense can be combated by pointing out areas where major changes have taken place fairly quickly, like smoking.

An Obama speech from 2006 did a good job of reminding people about the scale of change that can take place within a single human lifetime:

And all of this would have been unremarkable except for the fact that this woman, Marguerite Lewis, was born in 1899 and was 105 years old.

And ever since I met this frail, one-hundred-and-five-year-old African-American woman who had found the strength to leave her house and come to a rally because she believed that her voice mattered, I’ve thought about all she’s seen in her life.

I’ve thought about the fact that when she was born, there weren’t cars on the road, and no airplanes in the sky. That she was born under the cloud of Jim Crow, free in theory but still enslaved in so many ways. That she was born at a time for black folks when lynchings were not uncommon, but voting was.

I’ve thought about how she lived to see a world war and a Great Depression and a second world war, and how she saw her brothers and uncles and nephews and cousins coming home from those wars and still have to sit at the back of a bus.

And I thought about how she saw women finally win the right to vote. And how she watched FDR lift this nation out of fear and send millions to college on the GI Bill and lift millions out of poverty with Social Security. How she saw unions rise up and a middle-class prosper, and watched immigrants leave distant shores in search of an idea known as America.

As I argued recently, those in our generation will probably live to see the question of climate change decided in one way or another – either in the direction of catastrophic climate change fuelled by unrestrained fossil fuel burning, or in the direction of a renewably-based economy that can keep running forever.

R.K. October 8, 2010 at 12:30 pm

It would be interesting to see a study of exactly how the back-and-forth between regulators and industry has gone, on the subject of tobacco. In particular, what factors made regulators confident enough to impose restrictions that were opposed by the tobacco companies, and how they were able to overcome the political pressure associated with the risk of job and revenue loss.

Milan November 2, 2010 at 10:35 am

Professor David Nutt’s recent study – which found alcohol to be the most harmful drug when impacts on both the user and society are taken into account – has prompted some predictable responses from the alcohol lobby:

Mr Partington, who is the spokesman for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said millions of people enjoyed alcohol “as part of a regular and enjoyable social drink”.

I can’t help thinking of tobacco company representatives responding to health claims made about their product a few decades ago.

. November 10, 2010 at 8:42 am

“The Harper government’s recent decision to drop plans for a new round of cigarette-package warnings raised some eyebrows in the public-health world, to say the least. Canada had been a world-leader in requiring graphic alerts on tobacco labels, an idea since mimicked by numerous other countries. But there is wide agreement that the warnings need to be refreshed to continue acting as a deterrent, and Canada has not done so in a decade. Now the country’s premiere medical journal has weighed in, calling the decision to drop plans to upgrade the messages misguided and dangerous.

The policy has not only wasted years of effort and millions of dollars of work within Health Canada on developing new warnings, but will undoubtedly lead to higher smoking rates, the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) argues in an editorial in its latest edition. The government has said it wants to concentrate its effort on fighting contraband tobacco. There is no “logical reason” that can’t be done in conjunction with overhauling the package warnings, the journal says. Canadians would be forgiven for thinking the Conservatives have caved in to pressure from the tobacco industry, the editorial says.

The journal pleads for Leona Aglukkaq, the federal health minister, to commit to regularly renewing the warnings:

We should all be outraged about the suspension of efforts to renew tobacco warning labels … Let us therefore hope that our elected federal officials hear and heed the many Canadians whom their senseless policy shift has disappointed and angered.”


Milan November 10, 2010 at 9:27 am

Is there any empirical evidence out there on whether those warning labels work? For example, comparative studies of how many people started and quit smoking per month before and after they were introduced?

It would be pretty easy to conduct an experiment here.

Tristan November 10, 2010 at 12:35 pm

I posted this to demonstrate the continued strength of the tobacco lobby, not because I’m outraged at the decision from a public health perspective.

Milan November 10, 2010 at 1:50 pm

One claim I have heard is that tobacco taxes bring in more government revenue than dying smokers cost. As such, the government feels less pressure to regulate tobacco more.

Of course, governments also have a big financial interest in fossil fuel use.

. December 13, 2010 at 10:11 pm

As of the third season, seven of the nine writers for the show are women, in contrast to Writers Guild of America 2006 statistics that show male writers outnumber female writers by 2 to 1.

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