The U.S. has a rare opportunity this week to rein in the tobacco industry, and assert its mandate to protect and save lives, while proudly exercising cross-border diplomacy. The U.S. Trade Representative should accept a proposal to carve protections for Big Tobacco out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a mega-trade deal among 12 Pacific Rim nations, including the U.S.
Americans generally like breathing smoke-free at bars, restaurants, offices, airplanes and elevators. The tobacco industry has noticed, and they're not happy about it. Under present trade rules, predatory tobacco corporations have new global rights to challenge important tobacco control laws and regulations in the U.S. and elsewhere that help people quit smoking, and keep kids from getting addicted, like a ban on clove cigarettes, and limitations on advertising. The TPP would perpetuate and extend these trade rules and their threats to health.
Malaysia's chief negotiator last week proposed the only effective solution: Carve out tobacco control regulations and laws, and also remove tobacco products, from being covered by the TPP.
CPATH and important medical and public health allies have applauded Malaysia's carve-out proposal. On Sunday, Sept. 1, the NY Times editorial board stated its support.
The tobacco industry and their allies, on the other hand, are busy blowing smoke about it, and the U.S. is balking.
Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death, claiming 6.3 million deaths a year, including 1,200 Americans daily, and draining almost $200 billion a year in U.S. health care costs and lost productivity. Tobacco is barely a blip in the U.S. economy, and less than a fraction of a percent of our exports.
Trade agreements are supposed to lower prices for goods through competition. But lower prices for cigarettes means more kids will buy them, with damaging results for health.
Carving out tobacco is hardly a radical proposal. The global economy is dynamic, and the rules that govern it must be responsive. In 2007, for example, the Bush administration decided to exclude the U.S. gambling services sector from coverage by World Trade Organization rules, after the WTO ruled against the U.S. Internet gambling ban.
But tobacco is highly addictive, and as a result, highly profitable. Industry defenders are rushing to insist that the U.S. should develop an alternative proposal, and bring it back to the negotiating table. In fact, just such a proposal developed by the U.S. in August was deemed by local legislators as virtually ineffective.
The truth is, it is not that complicated. The TPP negotiations are negotiations. Our trading partner, Malaysia, has summoned the political will to advance a straightforward, effective proposal, one advocated unanimously for years by every major medical and health organization that has looked into the matter: carve out tobacco measures out of trade agreements, thereby eliminating the tobacco industry's grounds to challenge these measures. It is also consistent with the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, an international covenant supported by 176 countries worldwide, including all TPP partners except the U.S.
The TPP negotiators will meet in Washington, D.C., starting on Sept. 8, and again later in the month. After almost four years of talks, the 12 TPP countries have reportedly made only partial progress on key issues. Acknowledging countries' rights to adopt their own domestic regulations on tobacco is one issue where the U.S. Trade Representative can and should gracefully demonstrate statesmanship, as well as the Administration's determination to reduce the toll of preventable deaths, and agree to Malaysia's historic proposal to carve out tobacco from the TPP.