What can tobacco teach us about climate change policy?

The Hill

February 16, 2015

By Stuart Shapiro, contributor

“It is an incontestable fact that the vast majority of smokers, including millions of heavy smokers, never develop symptoms or signs of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. … It is equally a fact established beyond doubt that the chronic respiratory diseases mentioned are commonly observed in patients who have never smoked. Obviously only by completely ignoring these fundamental facts is it possible to uphold the claim of definite causal relationship between the chronic respiratory diseases and smoking.” This comes from a written statement by Dr. Israel Rappaport to the United States Senate in 1966, two years after the famous report from the surgeon general on the dangers of smoking. Resistance to regulating tobacco was high in the Senate and eventually the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act was much weaker than many tobacco critics wanted.

Sound familiar? Then-Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) in 2011: “The science is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet to me is just nonsense.” Or Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in 2010: “I think it’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity, or something just in the geologic eons of time where we have changes in the climate.”

As we know now, the scientific evidence on the relationship between tobacco and lung cancer is incontrovertible. In the years since 1966, many restrictions on tobacco use have been promulgated, through legislation, regulation and litigation. Now we have another issue where the scientific consensus is nearly universal but the political consensus (supported by a few modern Dr. Rappaports) is clearly not. The eventual outcome (taxation of fossil fuels, restrictions on their use but never an outright ban) is likely to resemble current policies on tobacco (taxation, restrictions on use, a ban on advertising). But how long will it take for the politics of climate change to catch up with the science of climate change?

In some way, tobacco was an easier issue politically than climate change. With tobacco, the job of scientists was to convince people that smoking was harming themselves, not other people (at least until secondhand smoke became an issue). As more and more people had loved ones suffer through lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, people became convinced of the relationship. With climate change, the victims are members of future generations or people who live near the rising oceans. Furthermore, climate change is plagued by what is known as the “tragedy of the commons” problem. If the United States curbs its emissions on its own, it will not be enough to stop global warming. Only if other countries do the same, will the greenhouse effect be slowed.

Fortunately, science has a way of winning out in the long run, when scientists largely agree as they do on these issues. Data already show that a clear majority of people are concerned about climate change, although they are not yet willing to pay for it. Unlike tobacco, whose impacts were felt at the individual level, the willingness to pay for restrictions on fossil fuel use may require another more major hurricane on the Eastern Seaboard or droughts in the West that extend for decades rather than years in order to change.

The Obama administration’s climate change regulations may serve a function like the surgeon general’s report in 1964 on smoking. It will give an official imprimatur to an issue around which science has already coalesced. However, just as opposition to curbing tobacco use stayed strong for 30 years after the surgeon general’s report, issuance of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations will not end the debate (even assuming they make it through the political and judicial gauntlet that awaits them).

When the science is as clear as it is on climate change or tobacco, eventually the public and then their representatives move toward the scientific consensus. The question is how long is “eventually”? For tobacco, resistance to the science cost untold thousands of lives. With climate change, the cost of delay could be even greater.

Shapiro is an associate professor and director of the Public Policy Program at Rutgers University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.



Scroll to Top