French Car Ads to Have Cigarette-Style Warning Labels Promoting Green Alternatives

Because fossil fuels are the new cigarettes.

Peugeot ad modified with label

Hulton Archives/Getty Images

All car ads in France will carry warning messages similar to those on cigarettes and alcohol. The legislation, which will go into effect as of March 2022, includes three rotating messages designed to promote greener vehicle alternatives:

Pour les trajets courts, privilégiez la marche ou le vélo – For short journeys, prioritise walking or cycling
Pensez à covoiturer – Think about lift sharing 
Au quotidien, prenez les transports en commun – On a day-to-day basis, take public transport

Print ads must have the warning in a box covering at least 7% of the ad. During TV or movie ads, it must stay on the screen long enough to be read or it must be spoken clearly. Ads must also carry the hashtag  #SeDéplacerMoinsPolluer, which translates to "choose less polluting means of transport."

Treehugger previously wrote about campaigns to ban SUV ads and we have complained that the marketing of big SUVs and pickup trucks encourages aggressive driving behavior. Legislation that would require warning labels and safety ratings for SUVs has been tabled in the state of New York. What's so encouraging about the French law is it applies to all cars and it is delivering an environmental message.

According to The Local, an English-language site covering French news, the carmakers are not amused. The CEO of Hyundai in France says: “It stigmatises drivers,” which is kind of the point. He complains that if "I am doing a short journey and have to go along a main road, I will do so neither on foot nor by bicycle.” But as we know from anti-smoking campaigns, labels are only one part of a bigger project. That main road probably has some bike infrastructure nearby.

The important point about these labels is that when they were introduced on cigarettes they were not designed to stigmatize, but rather, to educate. One of the first studies of its effectiveness found: "Smokers who noticed the warnings were significantly more likely to endorse health risks, including lung cancer and heart disease. In each instance where labeling policies differed between countries, smokers living in countries with government mandated warnings reported greater health knowledge."

In my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," I wrote about the similarities between what we have to do to get people off fossil fuels to how we got so many people off smoking.

"Of course, it requires more than individual action; it requires political action, regulation, and education. Perhaps the best example is the campaign against smoking, where we saw what happens when individuals, organizations, and government work together. Smoking was promoted by the industry, which buried information about its safety and owned the politicians, and fought every change. They hired experts and even doctors to challenge the evidence and deny that smoking was harmful. They had a real advantage in that the product they were selling was physically addictive. However, eventually, in the face of all the evidence, the world changed."

Labels are just the start and part of a bigger campaign. In France, advertisers will also have to say which emissions class the vehicles are in, much like the tar and nicotine ratings on cigarettes which encouraged a shift to brands with what was thought to be less harmful levels. The advertising of high-emission vehicles will be banned in 2028 and the European Commission wants to ban all internal combustion engines by 2035.

Paris street closed to cars
Paris streets being closed to cars.

 John van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty Images

And just as smoking was banned indoors and then even in restaurants and bars, it is getting harder and harder to drive in cities like Paris, where cars are now banned from some streets and limited in others. Almost everywhere, people who don't drive are getting louder about demanding more space for walking and biking, as well as cleaner air. I wrote in my book:

"Fossil fuels are the new cigarettes... It is the secondhand externalized effects that are the motivators for action; people cared less when smokers were just killing themselves than they did when secondhand smoke became an issue."

It's likely that it will be a while before any of this happens in North America: The automotive industry is powerful, and it designed the place to make it difficult to walk, bike, or take public transit. As with smoking, it takes political action, regulation, and education, as well as the individual's will to walk or get on a bike. And those externalized effects—the carbon dioxide emissions—will keep the climate warming everywhere, even in France.

View Article Sources