Which matters more: business interests or public health?

— Reflections on the HPBA’s hiring of a public relations firm that helped the hearth industry to defeat a 2015 wood burning ban

Why are so many decision-makers at all levels of government throughout North America so evidently reluctant to do the right thing and implement wood burning bans that are essential for protecting clean air and public wellness?  Why do so many health and environmental organizations – including even some Lung Association chapters – which should all be working hard to help achieve complete wood-burning bans, appear instead to tacitly support the highly polluting wood burning industry, which opposes those proactive and urgently-needed bans?  A major piece of this baffling puzzle has to do with the ongoing pro-wood burning industry efforts of the North American hearth industry’s largest lobby organization, the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, the HPBA (HPBAC in Canada).

When health and environmental advocates including Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment were urging Utah’s state government to implement an essential wood-burning ban that was proposed and considered in 2014/15, the HPBA’s anti-clean air, profit-driven actions included hiring a public relations firm named Stratacomm to retain and to advance the wood burning industry’s business interests.

This linked article, written from Stratacomm’s perspective as a client of the HPBA, is excerpted below:

Utah opened an unwelcome holiday surprise for the fireplace and woodstove industry in mid-December 2014 when that state’s governor proposed a prohibition on all winter-time woodburning in Salt Lake City and six surrounding counties. This sweeping proposal – which would have outlawed even low-emission hearth products certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – was on a fast track with seven public hearings planned for the first few weeks of 2015 and a decision expected in February.

The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) recognized this draconian rule as a major threat that would deter Utahns from upgrading to more environmentally responsible hearth products and would punish those customers who had already invested in cleaner technology. With no time to spare, HPBA engaged Stratacomm, the association’s long-time communications partner, to quickly raise customer awareness of the ban and mobilize a grassroots movement supporting a more reasonable alternative….

From a survey our team designed and fielded, we learned that support for the ban was stronger than expected and activating core supporters would be key to turn the tide in HPBA’s favor.”

 

In consultation with the HPBA, this public relations firm created a group with the name “Utahns for Responsible Burning,” along with a convincing-looking website, a pro-industry “petition campaign,” and a mailing list for the front group.  The HPBA has promoted and presented this project as one of its “grass-roots member efforts,” even while, not surprisingly, emails sent out in 2015 by the so-called “Utahns for Responsible Burning” displayed the HPBA’s head office as the “group’s” mailing address.

As the article linked below reveals:

Working closely with HPBA members, DC-based communications consultants Stratacomm, and Salt Lake City-based Wilkinson Ferrari & Co., HPBA developed and launched the Utahns for Responsible Burning campaign in just a matter of weeks. The campaign resulted in tremendous public outcry that forced regulators to rescind the proposal and prompted state lawmakers to overwhelmingly pass HPBA-supported legislation that prevents Utah’s Air Quality Board from imposing a similar ban in the future.

Other results included:

• 2,000 attendees packed seven public hearings, with the crowd nearly unanimously opposed to the wood burning ban

• Almost 100 news articles and local TV segments generating more than 25 million media impressions

• 3,500 petition signatures supporting responsible burning in less than a month

• 3,000 new subscribers to the campaign e-mail list, 2,500 followers on social media and 25,000 unique visits to the website during its first four weeks online.”

HPBA Nets Two Awards for Grassroots Campaign

Concerns about public health and air quality protection were set aside in response to the HPBA/Stratacomm campaign.  That the HPBA/Stratacomm campaign actually netted “public relations” awards is another unfortunate outcome, and it is no less troubling than if a tobacco industry group were to win awards for blocking an important cigarette smoking ban.

  Which matters more: business interests or public health?

 

“The campaign designed by Stratacomm was a perfect textbook exercise in how to defeat ill-conceived government action. The key was not to rely on people from the hearth industry, who w

 

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