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Tobacco state protest could hurt Obama trade deal

At issue is whether participating countries can have strict anti-smoking laws

Facing vehement protest from tobacco state lawmakers and business groups, the Obama administration appears to have retreated from efforts to keep cigarette makers from using trade treaties to attack countries that adopt strong anti-smoking rules.

At issue is whether a pending free trade deal should include language protecting the authority of nations to adopt tough regulations to reduce smoking. In recent years, tobacco companies have invoked trade agreements to challenge the most stringent rules, such as requiring large graphic warnings on packs of cigarettes.

The announcement last year that administration officials would seek such protective language in the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a sweeping trade deal being negotiated between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations—drew a storm of protest from powerful business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and American Farm Bureau Federation. They warned that seeking special treatment for tobacco could lead to similar exceptions for products vital to U.S. trade. Joining the chorus of opposition was a group of former U.S. Trade Representatives, including three employed by top law firms with tobacco industry clients.

Stung by the attacks, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative—the branch of the White House that coordinates trade policy—put the proposal on hold. Fifteen months and eight negotiating rounds have passed since then without U.S. officials presenting the proposal or revealing their plans. “We…are still considering stakeholder input,” Carol Guthrie, an assistant U.S. Trade Representative.

But with the possibility the treaty will be completed this fall, health advocates who seemed confident at first that the delay was temporary are voicing concern. Raising the stakes for business interests and tobacco foes alike is that talks have begun on a major European trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Whatever policy the White House pursues in one treaty it’s likely to follow in the other.

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