In the early 20th century, tobacco companies responded to emerging concerns about the health effects of smoking with a campaign to reassure the public about their products. They paid actors, athletes and even doctors to endorse their cigarettes in advertising that made outrageous claims backed up with pseudo-scientific medical reports.
These companies were so huge and powerful that they could bribe doctors to make such brazen claims in ads in exchange for fat payments worth almost half the physicians’ annual salaries. And consumers weren’t savvy enough to check whether ludicrous claims were backed up by science. In 1964, the government finally forced tighter restrictions on advertising and required warning labels be added on packaging.
We continue to see people still disregarding science today, whether it informs us about the effectiveness of wearing masks or the impact of burning fossil fuels and the resulting climate change. Common sense solutions like switching to renewable energy, using materials more efficiently and boosting recycling make moral, environmental and long-term economic sense.
However, like the cigarette companies that encouraged us to “smoke up for good health,” the coal, oil and natural gas industries are eager to protect their activities from regulations and preserve their profit margins. Since the 1970s, oil companies have challenged environmental advocacy groups by spreading climate disinformation to avert any government plan to reduce carbon emissions. The political power their money buys thrusts us ever closer to catastrophic climate change.
Their leaders drew their inspiration from the successful tactics of the tobacco industry to thwart any restrictions on their activities. They’ve even used the term “tobacco strategy” to explain in internal documents how corporations set up or fund seemingly independent think tanks and hire experts and scientists in order to discredit scientific research and evidence likely to justify governmental regulations on their activities. This constitutes a complete perversion of the scientific process, as the goal results in the fact that no scientifically-based call for environmental or safety regulations go unanswered and doubt is cast on the consensus reached in peer-reviewed scientific research.
Some people don’t want to admit that someone on the TV is lying to them and confusing public perceptions of the scientific evidence at hand.
Corporations attack the public officials they can’t bribe and counter facts with propaganda sourced from these pseudoscientific front groups specializing in sowing confusion. They issue one misleading “report” after another, pretending there is a significant disagreement in the legitimate scientific community in areas where there is actually a broad-based consensus.
Like the chain smokers too addicted to quit, it will take drastic consequences for the public to see who is actually trying to control them. The forces denying climate change have been remarkably successful in reducing environmentalists to isolated and marginal figures – easily mocked as “tree huggers” or “socialist wackos” – so their alarming words fail to impact public opinion, thus delaying decisive action until it simply can’t be ignored anymore.
That tipping point may already be here as the West Coast is engulfed in massive wildfires and parts of Pensacola are submerged under water. Few seem to care about pollution and toxins stemming from the hazardous wastes of industry and agriculture either.
Some deniers act out of an ideological opposition to any regulation and sometimes rest their case on the defense of the “American way of life,” defined by high consumption and ever-expanding material prosperity. I’m all for market-based solutions and keeping government in check, but the status quo ain’t cuttin’ it. I’ll buy in when I see real action instead of conspiracy theories dismissing what we see with our own eyes as a hoax.
I worry about the health impacts from the 1,000s of chemicals on the market today, most unregulated. We’ve had industrial byproducts and pharmaceuticals discarded into the ground and into our water supply for years. Like the lung cancer victims who were scammed by misleading cigarette ads, one day we’ll realize the devastating impacts of corporate greed.
The widespread adoption of single-use consumer plastics such as straws and bottled water pollute our oceans while piles of plastic waste grow in ports and recycling facilities due to China sharply reducing its imports of foreign scrap materials.
Some argue, “Why should we sacrifice when other countries are polluting too?” Pollution threats don’t stop at imaginary lines on a map. The US has 4% of the world’s population but is responsible for almost one-third of the excess carbon dioxide heating the planet. Remember that fact when refugees seek asylum due to their homes being flooded by rising sea levels and it becoming too hot to grow crops in their native soil. You think the civil unrest happening now is alarming? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
We’ve procrastinated and put off making lifestyle changes. We can’t even agree on a common set of facts. I’m reminded of the lyrics from a Kansas song: “We claim to know the secrets, the answers have been found / But how can one fool make another wise / ‘Cause nothing’s better than it used to be / To live and die is still a mystery / We take away and we give nothing back / We just consume it all and still we lack.”
— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: email@example.com.