For the Conservation Curious

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Job Loss vs. Health – Cigarettes and Coal April 3, 2017

The current president, Republican congressmen, and others bemoan the “death of coal” and the “war on coal”. They talk about how coal’s demise has resulted in job losses for many across Appalachia and beyond. No one can deny that when a coal mine closes, miners and others lose their jobs, and the surrounding communities’ economies suffer. Yet there is a link that I have not seen anyone discuss or write about, and I think it’s high time someone does… the similarities between health impacts from coal and cigarettes and how no one seemed to say the death of “Big Tobacco” was a job killer that should be re-thought.

The Tobacco Industry

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that smoking kills 480,000 people in the United States each year. That is one in every five deaths per day. As mounting evidence of this, as well as the addictive nature of nicotine and the tobacco industry’s cover-up came to light, there was strong pressure to stop the marketing of cigarettes and educate people on the benefits of quitting. More and more people began to quit smoking, which had a major impact on the tobacco industry’s profits.

The CDC says that the number of tobacco farms in the United States is down from a high of nearly 180,000 in the 1980s to less than 10,000 in 2012, although our country is still a leading producer (4th in the world). Think of how many tobacco farmers, cigarette manufacturing employers, distributers, and others who lost their jobs due to the acknowledgement of the health impacts of tobacco. Where was the outcry about those job losses? Perhaps at a southeastern U.S. scale, where most of it is grown, there was more discussion, but at a national level I don’t recall seeing anything of the magnitude we get about coal.

The Coal Industry

Physicians for Social Responsibility says that the burning of coal can cause asthma, lung disease, and lung cancer, and negatively impact lung development in children. For coal miners, black lung disease is a real and under-reported illness, according to an investigative report from NPR this past December. Hundreds of miners and former miners are dying each year in West Virginia alone, according to the report. Hundreds more in other coal mining states are dying as well.

Why the Silence?

Why is no one making a connection between coal mining and its negative impacts to people’s health with the impacts smoking has on health when trying to counter the “job killing” rhetoric of the current administration? Yes, when a coal mine is shut down people lose their jobs. But the same thing happened when cigarette plants and tobacco farms were shut down as people wised-up about smoking’s negative impacts. The people that worked in the tobacco industry had to adapt and find a new job. Those in the coal industry must do the same. And we as a country must help them take this next chapter in their life.

What the Future Holds

I hope that this blog will inspire others with more far-reaching audiences and greater impact to spread the message that the negative health impacts of mining and burning coal far-outweigh any benefits of keeping that industry going, just as the closing of cigarette manufacturing plants and tobacco farms did in the 1990s and beyond. We need to help miners, coal-burning plant technicians, and others transition to safer jobs that will lead the United States back on a path to innovation and prosperity. Whether that’s through alternative energy sources such as solar and wind or some new, untapped technology, it is high-time for us to move forward together. Let’s let coal go the way of cigarettes and snub it out.