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The Hazard of Free-Trade Tobacco

Give thanks to Malaysia for heading off, at least temporarily, an American effort to weaken the ability of countries to impose stiff rules on the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products within their own borders. The Malaysian proposal to preserve that ability led to a stalemate at a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade meeting in Brunei last week and forced the deferral of the issue to future meetings.

The United States and 11 countries bordering the Pacific Ocean had been engaged in the latest round of negotiations over a treaty intended to lower tariffs and other barriers to commerce. One of the issues was whether tobacco should be included in such a treaty or “carved out” so that health considerations could take precedence over expanded trade. The issue pits health advocates against the tobacco industry and other commercial interests.

On public health grounds, tobacco ought to be excluded from whatever rules are designed to increase trade in agricultural products. Reducing trade barriers to tobacco, a uniquely dangerous product, would serve to increase tobacco consumption and lead to many additional deaths on top of an already high total. Tobacco killed an estimated 100 million people in the 20th century and is projected to kill 1 billion people in this century unless strong action is taken to mitigate the damage. A carve-out from trade rules is only one tactic, but it could save millions of lives, especially in developing countries vulnerable to the industry’s pressure.

The United States, which in advance of the meeting had favored a relatively strong proposal to protect a nation’s tobacco control measures from being challenged as violations of trade agreements, offered a weaker proposal in Brunei. The American proposal simply refers to other international agreements that allow exceptions for public health and requires health officials from the 12 Trans-Pacific Partnership countries to consult each other before making trade challenges. It would not prevent the challenges from moving forward.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a strong advocate of tobacco control in this country and abroad, rightly denounced the American proposal as “weak half-measures at best.” The proposal leaves the door open for multinational tobacco companies to challenge legitimate tobacco control measures, as they already have in several countries in recent years.

Malaysia countered by proposing a complete carve-out of tobacco control measures that would protect a country’s ability to set its own rules for marketing, advertising, banning or taxing various tobacco products, among other control measures. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and several other medical and patient advocacy groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, applauded the Malaysian proposal. It would protect countries from the burdens and costs of fending off trade challenges and from potentially stiff financial penalties if they lose. And it would remove the danger that some countries might not enact strong tobacco control measures in order to avoid any possibility of challenges.

American trade officials need to toughen their stance when Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations resume. They should be siding with the public and those concerned about public health, not the makers of products known to be lethal and highly addictive.

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