UK Group Calls for Treating SUVs Like Cigarettes and Banning Advertising

This would be a good idea in North America too.

DOMINATING the parking lot
DOMINATING the parking lot.

 Lloyd Alter

Americans now buy more pickup trucks than cars; along with SUVs, light trucks are now 70% of the market. Nobody buys pickups in Britain but they are buying more SUVs; according to Sandra Laville in the Guardian,

In the UK last year more than 150,000 new cars sold were over [15.7 feet] 4.8 metres long, too large to fit in a standard parking space. SUVs make up more than 40% of new cars sold in the UK – while fully electric vehicles account for less than 2%. Globally, there are more than 200m SUVs, an increase of 35m in 2010, accounting for 60% of the increase in the global car fleet since 2010.
Smoking report
Smoking Report.  Badvertising

Now a new report (PDF here) written by David Boyle, with Andrew Simms, Emilie Tricarico, Leo Murray and Robbie Gillett, calls for treating SUVs like cigarettes, banning advertising and making them socially unacceptable. It is an odd report, more about the history of the war on tobacco than the war on cars, but there really are similarities, although tobacco's harm is mostly internalized and SUVs are more like second-hand smoke, dangerous to people externalized. But they both emit noxious and dangerous fumes.

Where cigarette smoke contains ingredients like benzene, nitrosamines, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, polycyclic hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, car exhaust has benzene, particulates, nitrogen oxide, polycyclic hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. 

The SUV and pickup ads that I see on Twitter all show them drifting or speeding down big, beautiful roads, with happy families or beautiful people carrying their bikes and kayaks to beautiful places, much like the cigarette ads did; I recall the last cigarette TV ad in Canada, two beautiful people driving a convertible down a mountain road while smoking their Craven As, mixing our two favorite polluters. As Robbie Gillett, one of the authors of the report notes, nothing has changed.

Their misleading ads promise us freedom and escape – but the reality of urban road conditions is grinding traffic jams, toxic air pollution and spiralling carbon emissions from road transport that will trash our climate goals. Let’s create space to breathe and space to think – free from the advertising pressures of big polluters.

Stopping Ads Isn't Enough

Big truck in the city
Big truck in the city.  Lloyd Alter

The dramatic decrease in the percentage of the population that smokes was not just due to the end of advertising, but to a multi-pronged campaign that could be copied not just for SUVs, but for dealing with the climate crisis as well. It also involved regulation, massive tax increases, externalizing the problem by focusing on the danger of second-hand smoke, which really only started in 1993 when the EPA released a report noting the dangers. This changed the story around cigarettes; according to a 1994 report Growing Up Tobacco Free, "no one should be exposed to tobacco smoke, because it puts everyone exposed to it at risk; therefore the environment should be smoke-free. People who smoke should do so only in environments that protect others from exposure, for example, in areas with separate ventilation systems."

However, the most interesting paragraph in this 1994 report is how it parallels the pickup crowd, with their love of big engines and killer front ends. It changed attitudes regarding peoples' freedom to pollute and kill. It became socially unacceptable for people to be exposed to other people's dangerous emissions.

This attitude reflects a marked shift from the traditional libertarian intuition that tobacco use (or other personal risk-taking) is ''no one else's business." It now seems that tobacco use, just as other health-related behaviors, is seen as "everyone's business" because the costs of tobacco-related disease are borne by the whole society. In general, the public seems to have accepted the idea that unhealthy personal choices are of public concern. This attitude is associated with widespread acceptance of the legitimacy of public policies aimed at discouraging people from using tobacco, particularly through taxes that require tobacco users to absorb the social costs of their unhealthy choices.

Light trucks (SUVs and pickups) have significant effects that are issues of public concern. They kill at three times the rate of cars, they take up more space, they have more embodied carbon and more operating emissions. It is time to take a lesson from the war on tobacco; banning advertising is a great start, but we have to attack on all fronts.