Climate vs. Tobacco

Tobacco and public health researcher Maria Nilsson and others have a Comment in the Lancet Climate policy: lessons from tobacco control (doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61959-0) in which they compare the policy response to the public health problems of tobacco to climate policy:

Controlling tobacco use is the highest immediate priority for global health, while climate change is the biggest threat to health in the medium and long term. The longstanding efforts to control the impact of the tobacco industry have important lessons for climate control.

Both health threats are underpinned by scientific evidence of increasing robustness. …
There are many similarities between tobacco use and climate change. In addition to causing huge damage to population health, both cause substantial adverse social, economic, equity, and gender effects. Both have long lead times between cause and effect, and both require long-term policies and monitoring systems. The number of countries implementing the policies effectively is far too low. Negative effects are increasing over time and will have greatest effects in low-income countries and poor populations. Both issues are influenced by strong vested interests; moreover, delaying tactics and the use of “junk science” by opponents of change have impeded effective policies.

Climate change can be compared to passive smoking because those who generate the damage are not the same people as those who suffer (in the case of tobacco) or the same country (in the case of climate change); greenhouse gases are the largest externality the world has ever experienced.

Externalities require public policy intervention because markets cannot and will not deal with them. As with tobacco use, climate change requires local action informed by local circumstances. But in both cases, solutions ultimately depend on globally coordinated policies.

There are also important differences. The health damage due to smoking accrues either directly to smokers or indirectly to others through passive smoking. The effects from climate change will be global; those countries responsible for the most cumulative emissions are much less damaged than those who suffer most from the health effects.

There are important lessons from tobacco control for climate policy. The existing research base calls for urgent, comprehensive, and sustained action. Political will and strong leadership are required for both areas: implementing effective tobacco control policies has taken decades and is far from complete. Additional funding to support action in low-income countries is in the interest of all. The main lesson from tobacco for the Copenhagen conference is that delay in agreeing on international policy and poor implementation will cost countless lives. We must act now in the interests of future generations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *