Breathe easy

A growing body of research reveals it also increases the risk of heart disease and strokes, impairs cognitive function and leads to as many as seven million premature deaths around the globe, every year.

Written by Nandita Murukutla | Updated: December 2, 2015 12:40 am
air pollution, pollution, asthma, lung disease, heart disease, strokes, impairs cognitive function, 2015 World Health Assembly, Climate Change, indian express columns Not only was the woman’s story untrue, the video was produced by Peabody Energy, the world’s largest privately held coal company.

Most people know that air pollution harms those with asthma or lung disease, but a growing body of research reveals it also increases the risk of heart disease and strokes, impairs cognitive function, harms child lung development and leads to as many as seven million premature deaths around the globe, every year. Consequently, a resolution at the 2015 World Health Assembly recognised air pollution as a global public health priority.

The path to clean air will not be easy. Strong lobbies and special interests will try to delay and derail good health policy, but we can leverage our experience of confronting other vested interests to deliver change. Many countries now have effective tobacco control policies, but had to overcome tobacco industry interference every step of the way. The companies most responsible for air pollution are using similar tactics.

Industry vociferously decries and even suppresses science harmful to its interests. The Master Settlement Agreement in 1998 revealed a trove of internal tobacco industry memos, showing that the industry knew that tobacco caused harm and death, and that tobacco control policies delivered public health benefits, but nevertheless downplayed them publicly to protect sales and profits.

The Pulitzer prize-winning InsideClimate News reported that Exxon was at the cutting edge of climate change research over 40 years ago, but suppressed its findings and subsequently went on to attack climate change as false, to protect its commercial interests. The industry-funded think-tanks have a habit of confusing policymakers and the public. Tobacco giant Philip Morris established the Council for Tobacco Research to promote alternative explanations for lung cancer in smokers. Similar think-tanks attempt to subvert clean air policies.

The Beacon Hill Institute produced highly critical reports on proposed US clean air regulations, using discredited economic models. The Koch brothers, whose corporation is guilty of egregious environmental violations, funds the Institute. Similarly, industry-funded groups peddle misnomers such as “clean coal”; like “light cigarettes,” these terms evoke an association of mitigated risk that is misleading.

The tobacco industry often claims that tobacco control policies will impoverish entire communities, conveniently ignoring that the economic costs of tobacco-related diseases and deaths total around $22 billion a year in India alone. Critics of clean air regulations call authorities like the US Environmental Protection Agency “job-killing machines.” Yet, clean air regulations are economically beneficial: The European Union estimates its clean air policy package will offer an economic benefit of €40-140bn per year in 2030, and deliver €3bn in direct economic benefits.

The tobacco industry claims it helps poor tobacco farmers and workers. In fact, they are often working in degraded conditions, earning mere subsistence wages and susceptible to tobacco-related illness. Major polluters do the same; the Chinese campaign “From Candles to Computers” told the story of a young, rural woman who was saved from impoverishment by the arrival of coal-fired power plants in her village. Not only was the woman’s story untrue, the video was produced by Peabody Energy, the world’s largest privately held coal company.

The tobacco industry frequently depicts governments that institute strong tobacco control policies as “nanny states”. Critics of clean air policies make similar arguments, tapping into the cultural zeitgeist of freedom and independence.
Tobacco giants and big polluters seek to block international policy when it goes against their interests. For example, during negotiations on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in Moscow in 2014, the tobacco-funded International Tax and Investment Centre lobbied government officials at private meetings to subvert agreement on tobacco taxes. This year, global energy companies EDF and ENGIE are part-sponsors of the Conference of Parties-21 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In sum, the big polluters’ playbook is familiar with health advocates, even if the policy issues and interventions to curb air pollution are different. This points us towards potential solutions. By exposing industry tactics, spreading the truth about tobacco harm, creating social movements, and successfully litigating against industry violations and interference, tobacco control has advanced in even the most unlikely countries. By using our collective experience to deploy similar strategies against big polluters, we could make quick progress towards implementing clean air policies that will improve the health and wealth of our nation.

The writer is country director for India and global director for research, World Lung Foundation

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  1. K
    Dec 2, 2015 at 12:21 pm
    In India liquor flows like water, especial in election time. No government dares to ban liquor fearing dent in revenues. Likewise eventhough Cigarettes and cigars are harmful, by saying that the government wants to wean away smokers, it adds to the tax but never bans it! The country where budgets mean business and business means profit by hook or by crook, where is the consideration of free and fair air and good health?
    1. A
      Arun Sharma
      Dec 2, 2015 at 6:18 am
      Pollution is result of industrial advancement. Many life style diseases surfaced owing to industrial advancement rendering laborious activities of life to gadgets. Increasing agriculture, production led to over consumption. Advances in medical science to increase in life span and discovery of new diseases such as cancers. Instead of blaming product and service manufacturers, human being has to make smart choices to remain fit and let the environment conducive to remain fit and health. Unfortunately, it is not happening. Instead of doing it voluntarily, the world over, new rules are being framed continuously. India with huge potion has to bear the most of the brunt of side effects of industrialization. It can not defend this problem on presenting per capita data. Even percapita carbon emission is low, it is collectively very high and will keep growing. It can demand developed countries to provide clean technologies at cheaper cost.
      1. K
        Dec 2, 2015 at 5:02 am
        Adani, the man who provided planes to the mann-key man before the latter was elected as India's PM, has acquired Australia's largest coal mine, the output of which is planned to be exported to India. India will have to accept huge quanies of coal, to produce power, thanks to Adani. Of course, he won't be standing next to the unloading ports in India, to breathe the air.
        1. D
          Dr Pande
          Dec 2, 2015 at 1:05 pm
          There is no comparison between cigarettes and pollution caused by smoking chulhas, tyre burning , automobile smoke etc. Most of the things that are burnt are for transportation, cooking, metal extraction etc. Though both can cause cancer and breathing problems, cigarettes was more personal and hence the publicity and awareness made impact. Here if you automobile then first casualty will be daily needs and essential commodity for which you have no alternative.
          1. B
            Bhuvan Singh
            Dec 2, 2015 at 1:48 pm
            Agree with your points, lets use religion in this. Religion is the opium of the mes. Karl Marx
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