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Malaysia lauded for seeking to exclude tobacco in trade pact

Washington, DC 26 August – Tobacco control advocates from over 20 different countries lauded Malaysia for its announcement to exclude tobacco from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). The TPP is a free trade agreement involving twelve countries of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) bloc: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, USA, and Vietnam. Earlier this week, Malaysia’s health minister announced that its government has decided to carve out tobacco from the TPP in order to protect tobacco control measures from legal challenges, and stated that it is up to the trade negotiators to carry this out.

In a related development, United States Trade Representative Michael Froman announced his intention to propose different language on tobacco. The U.S. proposal is far weaker than the full exemption Malaysia is proposing, and also weaker than a draft proposal announced in May 2012 that the U.S. touted as a “safe harbor” for tobacco regulations. A number of legal experts have opined that the new U.S. language will offer no protection for tobacco control measures.

A trade session at a conference on tobacco control at the Asia Pacific Conference on Tobacco or Health discussed the potentially damaging impact of the TPP, which is targeted to be concluded in 2013. Dr. Judith Mackay, the chair of the conference, explained that the wide ramifications of this trade pact could reach many other countries. Dr. Prakit Vathesatogkit, a tobacco control expert from Thailand, said, “Right now, the tobacco industry has filed 11 cases against us in local courts because of our policy to increase pack warning sizes to 85%. If Thailand joins the TPP, the multinational tobacco companies could use more arguments and could file even more cases.”

Advocates included over a hundred professors, researchers, medical doctors, and public health professionals. They referred to Malaysia’s decision as an exercise of the sovereign right of governments to protect public health. Their statement also urged all TPP countries to cooperate with this effort to reduce tobacco consumption and support Malaysia’s position.

Dr. Zarihah Zain, adviser to the group MyWatch, voiced optimism over Malaysia’s move. “Countries that do well in promoting their tobacco control measures and championed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, like Australia, Brunei, Singapore, and New Zealand, should have every reason to support Malaysia because they are obligated under the treaty to help other FCTC parties in accelerating implementation of the FCTC.”

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is a global tobacco control agreement among 177 nations to recognize tobacco use as an epidemic and to reduce tobacco use globally. Article 2 states that parties are free to enter into agreements and treaties as long as these are not incompatible with the FCTC. Article 5.2 establishes obligations of each party to cooperate with others in developing appropriate policies for preventing and reducing tobacco consumption, nicotine addiction and exposure to tobacco smoke. See ASH’s statement on the U.S. proposal here>