THE BLOG

Tobacco: Symbol of Corrupt Trade Policy

The deadly tobacco industry increasingly deploys trade charges intended to bludgeon countries from Uruguay to Australia into abandoning policies that keep kids from getting addicted, and help smokers quit, as well documented in the New York Times.

The U.S. Trade Representative should fix this problem during negotiations on the proposed 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). But stalemates in U.S. trade policy are perpetuating this obvious injustice.

Trade ministers derive priority status within governments based largely in outdated beliefs that they will magically conjure prosperity by conspiring in secret, allegedly to eliminate trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas which in fact have long go been substantially reduced. The predominant business of agreements like the TPP is actually reducing "technical barriers" to trade -- that is, democratically adopted laws and regulations that protect the public's health, environment, labor standards, and financial transactions.

In the secretive, rarified world of trade negotiations, even when public health succeeds in getting a proposal to the negotiating table on an issue like tobacco, it is subject to be traded away at any moment by a trade minister who views it primarily as a bargaining chip for deals on more important concerns, like sugar, cars, or financial derivatives.

The Center for Policy Analysis on Trade and Health (CPATH) has systematically documented how tobacco industry trade challenges threaten public health's rights to implement tobacco control measures. Medical and public health leaders in the U.S. and worldwide have echoed the call to "carve out" tobacco from trade agreements.

Malaysia presented a carve-out proposal at TPP talks in August, The USTR has advanced two increasingly weak compromises. Legal analysis from Georgetown [R. Stumberg, Safeguards for Tobacco Control: Options for the TPPA. America Journal of Law and Medicine, 39 (213); 382-441] has confirmed in irrefutable detail that compromises short of a "carve out" would be virtually ineffective.

Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide, 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.

But the tobacco industry has made it clear that it will oppose any restriction on its rights to continue to appropriate trade rules. They've bought a box seat to the hermetically sealed, secretive trade negotiations, and the solid complicity of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Public health has no such advantages. Interestingly, though, we have the truth. And in this possibly unusual case, the truth is increasingly difficult to ignore.