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How cigarette companies use free trade deals to sell more cigarettes to women and kids

Global trade negotiations in Washington this week will determine how cigarette companies will be able to market their products in developing nations—and potentially, overturn smoking restrictions around the world.

As cigarette smoking has fallen in the United States and Europe thanks to public health laws and liability lawsuits, global tobacco companies have increasingly turned to developing markets to expand their business. Now they’re trying to make sure the largest trade agreement since the World Trade Organization gives them the tools they need to stop those countries from adopting the laws that cost them customers in wealthier nations.

“It is very important for people to understand that the industry is using trade law as a new weapon, and [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] provides an opportunity to put a stop to that,” Susan Liss, the executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, says.

Like everyone else, cigarette companies turn to emerging markets

Smoking rates are plunging in the US—from 25% of the population in 1990 to 19% today—and similar drops are happening in the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. Today, of the world’s growing population of 1.3 billion smokers, 80% reside in low or middle-income economies. Tobacco companies naturally want to make sure they can protect and expand their businesses in those markets, especially among women, who have much lower smoking rates than women in wealthier countries.

Until the late 1990s, the US government was keen to help American tobacco companies accomplish this end, threatening trade fights with Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea unless they opened their borders to US cigarettes and their sophisticated marketing campaigns. A government study found that in the year after US companies entered South Korean markets, smoking among teenagers surged, especially among young women, where the share of smokers increased from 1.6% to 8.7% in just one year.
Public health and development organizations decry the expansion of smoking in these countries, fearful not just about the death rate—the World Health Organization estimates that one billion people will die from smoking this century—but also the secondary costs. Those include money spent by the malnourished and poor on cigarettes rather than staples, agricultural labor diverted to inefficient tobacco farming rather than food or other enterprise, and the costs of health care for the myriad ailments associated with cigarette smoking and second-hand smoke. The face of these fears is a chain-smoking Indonesian toddler:

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