Are We Being Duped by Our Government on Trade Negotiations?


The 15th negotiating round of the ongoing TransPacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement will end tomorrow in Auckland, New Zealand. This marks the fourth round that U.S. negotiators have failed to “table” (formally propose) a special exception protecting governments’ right to legislate on tobacco, which they promised back in May.

The public health community has not seen the text of the exception, because only big corporations are allowed to see the draft TPP text. But we’ve had it described to us at length. It was the result of painful negotiations among the United States Trade Representative (USTR), the White House, Health and Human Services, Congress, and Big Tobacco. As far as our experts can tell (not having seen it), it’s not great, but it would at least get the conversation about tobacco going amongst the TPP negotiators. There was a tacit agreement between the U.S. government and health groups that the latter would lay off criticizing (and even extolling the virtues of) the exception or the TPP in general in order to give the administration political cover to actually table the exception. So we waited. And waited. There were some hints that once the election was over, the political balancing would change and it would be tabled. It’s over, and it wasn’t.

Will it be tabled next time? USTR won’t say. When asked for a reason for the delay, they answer “We are still consulting on the text.” Which is a strange answer for two reasons. First, back in May USTR made a point of telling us that it was extremely difficult to agree on the text, and that a lot of political give and take was necessary. It took months. So how are revisions politically feasible? Second, who are they consulting with? They certainly haven’t been asking us for any input.

There are TPP negotiators from other countries who are keen to see the exception, and to see their tobacco regulations protected under the agreement. But in general, the U.S. holds most of the power in trade negotiations – smaller countries are reluctant to rock the boat, and so rather than propose something themselves, they would prefer to wait for the U.S. to start the conversation. We’ve been prepping them for 18 months on the tobacco issue, and they are ready to talk.

A trade expert pointed out recently that the U.S. tobacco proposal (as far as they could tell from not reading it) sounded a lot more like a reservation than an exception. Reservations are taken at the very end of negotiations, when most chapters have been closed. Is the U.S. simply going to protect its own tobacco measures at the last moment, and leave the other countries open to endless lawsuits from the tobacco industry? If so, was this the plan all along, or has the plan changed due to industry pressure? Either way, if the exception is never tabled, public health groups should be outraged at being lied to. And the administration should be ashamed. Their failure to act – and duplicitous treatment of constituents who largely supported it in the last election – will directly lead to millions of additional deaths.

President Obama, please do the right thing. There is no grey area here – the interests of Big Tobacco are directly opposed to the interests of public health. They are not a stakeholder, they are the vector of a disease that will kill one billion people this century.