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Are Fossil Fuels the Next Tobacco? They Should Be | Commentary

By Gary Cohen In the 113th Congress, members took in more than $40 million dollars in campaign contributions from oil, gas and coal companies — the same companies that receive $37.5 billion in U.S. subsidies. We’ve seen this dependency on corporate money before, during the tobacco wars of the 1960s. From that campaign, we learned how critical divestment is for social change.  

Kicking an addiction is never easy. It’s particularly hard when it involves an entire society — but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Health care professionals have fought relentlessly against tobacco addiction, with considerable success. It has been an impressive campaign, in which divestment from tobacco companies played a major role. We pushed Congress to divest their campaign contributions too. Now 193 members haven’t taken any tobacco money in 10 years and have been certified “Tobacco Free.” Between 1965 and 2009, the number of people that quit smoking doubled and billions of dollars in health care costs were saved. As Congress now knows, we’re up against the same old tactics for a new dangerous addiction: fossil fuels. We built our entire global economy on a fossil fuel infrastructure and watched fossil fuel companies become among the wealthiest corporations on Earth. This addiction, like smoking, is incredibly hazardous to our health.  

Several British medical groups asked the health sector to divest from fossil fuels entirely, calling it “a responsibility to future patients.” They drew on their past leadership in the tobacco divestment campaign and took a brave step in adding their voices to this battle. Others are joining the fight too: Gundersen Health System froze its fossil fuel investments earlier this year and Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund, the largest in the world, announced that it has divested itself from 114 risky assets on environmental and climate grounds over the past three years.  

They all have compelling reasons for doing so. According the World Health Organization, air pollution from burning fossil fuels kills more than 7 million people each year around the world. This is more than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined.  

Coal combustion, which accounts for 40 percent of all U.S. energy use, is particularly problematic. Coal emissions are directly linked to cancer, respiratory disease, heart disease and brain damage in children. Coal mining is also one of the deadliest professions, causing 8 percent of all occupational deaths worldwide.  

On top of all these localized effects, burning fossil fuels is the leading cause of climate change, which in turn contributes to a range of health effects such as heat stroke, asthma, waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, and vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever and malaria.  

The WHO called climate change the greatest health threat of our time. That may be putting it mildly, since both the health of people and the planet are at stake.  

What can the anti-tobacco movement teach the health care sector about how to kick addictions? How do we join the doctors calling for divestment on the hard road to recovery?  

First, we need to make climate change a public health priority. It wasn’t until U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry issued his warning that tobacco was harmful to our health in 1964 that everything changed. A watershed moment in this country, the first surgeon general’s report on smoking and health marks the moment the public tide began to turn against tobacco, eventually saving 8 million people from premature smoking-related deaths.  

The health effects of fossil fuels are clear. We need the surgeon general to issue a warning that climate change — driven by the burning of fossil fuels — is dangerous to our health. Once people understand the health impacts of climate change, we need to turn that comprehension into something more.  

Fossil fuel companies need to be held accountable for public health costs. State attorneys general banded together to hold tobacco companies responsible for their public health costs, and we need a similar effort to recoup the health costs of pollution from fossil fuels. This money could help communities create healthy energy infrastructure and prepare for the coming storms of climate change.  

We should support those doctors calling for divestment from fossil fuels, and we should ask Congress to divest along with us. Let’s learn from the success of the tobacco movement and forge a consensus that fossil fuels have no place in a healthy 21st century economy. Let’s kick our addiction and start on the path to a healthy recovery.  

Gary Cohen is president and founder of Health Care Without Harm.

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