Twenty years ago, it seemed that virtually everyone smoked. You couldn’t sit in a restaurant for five minutes without stinking of cigarettes for hours. Now, in state after state, even biker bars are going smoke-free.

Clearly, there’s been a dramatic shift in the public’s attitude toward smoking — but it hasn’t been an intellectual shift. Since the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of smoking, anyone tapping a cigarette out of a pack knew the possible health consequences. Still, through the combined magic of advertising and denial, for years the strongest image in many people’s minds as they puffed away was Faye Dunaway romantically chain-smoking.

Image: CDC.

Over the past two decades, that image has changed. When a person fingers a cigarette today, she’s more likely to envision a dying Yul Brynner denouncing smoking, or lying tobacco execs, or the Marlboro Man rasping for breath through a chest tube.

What’s changed are the emotional images associated with smoking, the ones anti-tobacco activists worked so hard to publicize.

The force of these images has resulted in 35 billion fewer cigarettes smoked annually in the U.S. since 1998, according to the Department of Agriculture. In Maine, where the state’s anti-smoking campaign is as fully funded as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend, smoking among high-school students declined by 37 percent between 1997 and 2002. The tobacco war has proven that no matter how addictive the substance and how well-funded the industry’s ads, people can wean themselves off dangerous habits.

Could we apply tobacco-war lessons to the fight against global warming?

A Hummer-dinger of an image problem.

The issues are surprisingly similar. We know what will happen if we keep the planet smoking: heat waves and spreading diseases, wilting crops and rising seas. But in spite of this knowledge, when an American gets behind the wheel of an SUV, the strongest image in his mind is of attractive, wealthy people accelerating up a ravine in a shiny, new oversized vehicle.

One reason we haven’t come to grips with reality is that some fossil-fuel companies have been imitating R.J. Reynolds, doing all they can to hide the truth. Several of the biggest oil companies (including ExxonMobil and Texaco) for years backed the Global Climate Coalition, which exaggerated uncertainties about global warming and propagated misinformation about climate science. Although officially disbanded, the GCC website is still plastered with misleading articles. ExxonMobil and other corporations also spend big bucks on deceptive ad campaigns, publishing scientifically questionable messages about global warming in prominent spots like the New York Times op-ed page.

Also, like Big Tobacco, fossil-fuel companies lobby the government hard to protect their markets and their profits. During the 2000 election, they contributed more money to Republicans than any other industry.

Image: AdBusters.org.

Ad Hock

One of the strongest weapons in the tobacco war has been anti-smoking commercials. The war against fossil fuels could employ the same technique. Recently, a national survey conducted by the FrameWorks Institute, a Washington, D.C., communications think tank, found that anti-global warming ads can be highly effective if they feature a carefully chosen spokesperson (business executives, religious leaders, and scientists were generally well-received) who explains the problem with a simple analogy (such as a blanket of carbon dioxide trapping heat above the Earth) and points out viable solutions.

“Solutions are the starting point. People are tired of doom and gloom,” said Howard Ris, Jr., former president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who oversaw the FrameWorks study.

Such an ad campaign could be funded by a carbon tax, like the cigarette tax that funded anti-smoking commercials. “Yeah, right,” you say. But remember: Twenty years ago, no one thought tobacco companies would pay out billions in damages, much of it earmarked for anti-smoking campaigns. Only accumulated medical information about addiction, exposes about tobacco-company lies, and heartbreaking stories of defendants dying of cancer changed public attitudes.

In five years, who knows what images Americans will associate with wasting energy? If the hurricane of the century hits Florida or dengue fever shows up in Detroit, the public’s thinking might change. Already, concern about global warming is such that, in spite of the combined power of the gas, coal, oil, and automotive lobbies, the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act missed passing in the Senate last fall by a mere seven votes.

Not so sexy, is it?

Photo: DOE.

Following the example of anti-tobacco activists and attorneys, several lawyers are currently preparing class-action suits against companies that have recklessly toyed with the climate. Perhaps a group of children will one day sue ExxonMobil for spoiling the planet and compromising their futures. I can imagine TVs around the country tuned in to see a small girl testifying in court, perched on a phonebook. I can imagine the images in viewers’ minds shifting, changing what they feel when they turn the key in the ignition. I can imagine state officials — already addicted to cigarette taxes and settlements — leaning closer, smelling big money.

The CDC has demonstrated that the anti-smoking war is best fought concurrently on many fronts, through school education, cessation programs, and advertisements. Likewise, a carbon tax could fund public transportation, sustainable energy, ads, and educational programs.

There is, admittedly, a weak point in the comparison between the tobacco and fossil-fuel wars: If you stop smoking — bingo! — you’ve improved your health. If you choose to better insulate your house or commute by bike or bus, you have to convince millions of others to do the same before global-warming trends will be affected.

This reasoning, though, holds sway only because we aren’t firmly committed to the cause. None of us would pay a dollar to a terrorist holding a bake sale, even though thousands of others would need to do the same before he’d have enough to buy a bomb. We wouldn’t because we have a strong emotional image of what terrorism can bring about, seared into our national consciousness.

We now need to sear that consciousness with vivid images of the consequences of wasting energy. We need to explain global warming in plain language, with straightforward analogies. Ad execs, lawyers, and activists must band together, like the anti-tobacco lobby, and form a united front to literally change people’s minds.

Then, finally, we might kick this deadly habit.