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Free Trade Agreement Ignores Global Tobacco Epidemic

Talks on a tobacco exception in a free trade agreement between the United States and ten other countries in the Asia-Pacific region – the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – became the subject of many unanswered questions during the stakeholder briefing with chief negotiators at Sky City on Friday, 7 Dec 2012. “We are still undergoing internal consultations,” was the response of Barbara Weisel, chief negotiator for the U.S., when asked about the U.S. draft proposal to recognize tobacco as a unique product in what is intended to be the most comprehensive and ambitious free trade agreement in history. The U.S. announced the draft in May, but several negotiating rounds have come and gone and the exception has not been formally proposed.

Tobacco use is responsible for nearly 6 million deaths per year, and is on track to kill one billion people this century. Governments responded in 2004 by adopting the world’s first public health treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The FCTC has been rapidly embraced, and includes 175 countries, including all but one of the TPP negotiating countries. Tobacco plain packaging and graphic warnings, point of sale bans and bans on flavored cigarettes, interventions found in the FCTC and its guidelines, have been subject to several high profile trade disputes initiated by tobacco industry interests in the past 3 years, causing serious concern in the public health community.

According to Mary Assunta, Senior Policy Advisor of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA): “Although ten of the eleven countries negotiating the TPP are Parties to the international tobacco treaty, most trade negotiators at the 15th Round of the TPPA in Auckland have little awareness of their obligations under the FCTC nor of the tobacco industry’s tactics to undermine public health. It is almost like they are running on parallel tracks with opposite destinations – one to reduce tobacco and the other to increase trade of tobacco products.”

The FCTC Conference of the Parties was held a few weeks ago in Seoul, and Parties at that meeting voted to exclude the tobacco industry from attending the negotiations relating to the FCTC. Governments at that meeting rejected Interpol’s application for observer status to the COP on the ground that it had received funding from a tobacco company (Philip Morris). This same policy has driven many governments to reject so-called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) from tobacco companies, and disallow it from interfering in policy development and implementation.

“In contrast to the FCTC policy to exclude the tobacco industry, the TPP seeks the input of the tobacco industry to promote free trade. This is not compatible with FCTC obligations,” according to Chris Bostic Deputy Director of Policy for Action on Smoking and Health, a U.S.-based anti-tobacco group.

Bostic, citing extensive legal research from the Harrison Institute, adds: “Trade negotiators have yet to officially recognise tobacco as a hazardous product. Tobacco is unlike any other consumer product. When used exactly as intended, it kills.”

Now into its 15th Round, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam have been negotiating the proposed TPP agreement since March 2010. Canada and Mexico recently joined the talks, and other countries are expected to follow.

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