Tobacco Industry Exploits Trade Agreements

There was a lot of coverage of the State of the Union last week; but, one thing you probably didn’t hear a lot of talk about was President Obama’s declaration to focus on trade issues. In fact, in his address the president stated his intention to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement that would boost American exports and economic participation in the growing markets of Asia, and to launch talks on an ambitious and comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union. The president also said that the U.S. will work to connect more people to the global economy, which will help to fight extreme poverty and save children from preventable death. The TPP trade negotiations present an important opportunity to begin, and set a precedent for, treating tobacco products differently to achieve the economic development, poverty alleviation and health goals the president discussed.

Tobacco use kills approximately 6 million people a year globally. If this pandemic goes unchecked, an estimated 1 billion people will die from tobacco use this century. Tobacco deaths shatter families, exacerbate poverty, thwart economic development and make it more difficult for low- and middle-income countries to grow in the face of suppressed worker productivity and the escalating cost and toll of tobacco-related disease and death. There is overwhelming international consensus on what needs to be done to address the global tobacco crisis. This consensus is embodied in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the world’s first public health treaty, which has been ratified by 176 nations. Regrettably, the U.S. has not ratified the FCTC, but we are largely implementing its provisions, primarily through U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco products under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.

The Tobacco Atlas, published by the American Cancer Society and World Lung Foundation,documents public health activity addressing the scourge of tobacco products throughout the world. But the tobacco industry, which earns billions of dollars from the death and disease caused by their products, is not standing idly by. The tobacco industry views low- and middle-income countries as emerging markets for their deadly products. And when public health advocates and governments act in the interest of the health of their nations, the tobacco industry and its proxies use trade agreements as vehicles to stop implementation of meaningful tobacco control measures.

For example, Uruguay adopted strong packaging and warning label requirements for cigarette packs in 2010. How did the tobacco industry respond? It filed an investment treaty dispute against Uruguay. Last year, Australia adopted a requirement that cigarettes be sold only in plain packaging. What did the tobacco industry do? It targeted Australia with a trade dispute, an investment treaty dispute and a court case – all of which are extremely costly for the country to defend.

The economic damage caused by the tobacco industry doesn’t stop with trade disputes initiated by them or countries acting as their collaborators.   Other countries considering adoption of tobacco control measures to protect the health of their citizens are discouraged from acting by the threat of the tobacco industry initiating costly and often lengthy disputes against them.

It is time for the nations of the world, including the U.S., to negotiate trade agreements that are consistent with the broad global consensus that governments should adopt tobacco control measures to protect public health. The United States developed a tobacco proposal that is expected to be offered in negotiations of the TPP free trade agreement, which promises to be one of the largest trade agreements in recent years. ACS CAN is working to ensure that negotiations will create an improved opportunity for our trade partners to also be good public health partners when it comes to dealing with products that cause disease and death, which is all that tobacco products are. Trade agreements should contribute to, or at least not obstruct, efforts to save lives rather than protect the tobacco industry’s profits.


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