Fossil fuels should have cigarette-style warnings, health experts say

Louise Boyle
An Albanian man claims an image of his amputated leg is being used on EU cigarette packets without his consent: Getty

Warning labels, like those on cigarette packets, could be used to show the health risks of fossil fuels, a group of health experts have suggested.

An article, published in the British Medical Journal, said that adding health warnings at the point of sale for fossil fuels could have “significant impact on the awareness of climate change”.

The experts suggested that labels at gas stations, on energy bills and plane tickets would provide a “low-cost, scalable way” to change behaviour by making people aware of the health risks of burning fossil fuels, which have more impact than pointing out the environmental issues.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have less than 30 years to reach net-zero emissions to keep global warming below 1.5C.

A global temperature increase of more than that and scientists warn of catastrophic changes to our resources and ecosystems, with more intense and frequent events such as floods, droughts and fires.

Cigarette packet warnings were introduced in the 1960s and now 118 countries require labels with graphic pictures illustrating the risk of smoking.

The result has been that smoking is “no longer viewed as a normal lifestyle choice”, the experts wrote. “Fossil fuel use 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."

Stigma around smoking has also increased, along with the cost. TV ads were banned and film and TV were discouraged from associating smoking with cool or sexy characters.

The health experts suggest that some of these methods could also shift attitudes on fossil fuel use – in particular by banning ads which allow companies to make “misleading claims about investments in renewable energy”.

Warning labels about fossil fuels can help connect the dots for consumers about the "abstract threat of the climate emergency with the use of the fossil fuels in the here and now”.

The labels would nudge users to choose alternatives to fossil fuels, thus increasing demand for zero-carbon renewable energy.

The BMJ article warns that getting a program up and running would be challenging - in Canada, the fuel industry “co-opted” designs showing biodiversity loss into a “smart fueling” initiative and left out mention of the health risk.

Earlier this year, the city of Cambridge in Massachusetts voted to have all self-service gas pumps labelled with the risks of fossil fuels. ​

Fossil fuel health warning ads would require government action but could have targeted results. Those who use gas-guzzling vehicles or are frequent flyers, would see the warnings more frequently, “thus having a potentially larger impact on those individuals who are disproportionately contributing to the climate emergency”.

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