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WTO Orders U.S. to Dump Landmark Obama Youth Anti-Smoking Law

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A landmark U.S. health policy already was being struck down even as protestors surrounded the Supreme Court over the attack on President Obama's healthcare law. Behind closed doors in Geneva, a World Trade Organization (WTO) tribunal issued a final ruling ordering the U.S. to dump a landmark 2009 youth anti-smoking law.

The Obama administration's key health care achievement slammed by the WTO was the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (FSPTCA), sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). The ruling, issued Wednesday, was on the final U.S. appeal which means that now the U.S. has 60 days to begin to implement the WTO's orders or face trade sanctions.

This outrageous WTO ruling should be a wake up call. Increasingly "trade" agreements are being used to undo important domestic consumer, environmental and health policies. Instead, the Obama administration has intensified its efforts to expand these very rules in a massive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) "free trade" agreement.

The WTO's ruling against banning the sale of flavored cigarettes isn't the only example of its attack on consumer protection and health laws. The U.S. has filed WTO appeals on two other U.S. consumer laws -- U.S. country-of-origin meat labels and the U.S. dolphin-safe tuna label -- both were slammed by lower WTO tribunals in the past six months. Yup, in short order we could see the WTO hating on Flipper, feeding us mystery meat and getting our kids addicted to smoking.

The challenged tobacco control U.S. law was designed to reduce teen smoking by banning "starter flavorings," since tobacco firms had begun marketing flavors like cola, chocolate, strawberry and clove. The 2009 law forced U.S. firms to cease sales of these products, whether imported or domestically produced.

Wednesday, the WTO sided with Indonesia, who claimed that the U.S. ban of their imported clove-favored cigarettes should not be allowed. A key reason was that the U.S. had not banned all flavored-cigarettes (namely menthols). Thus, they argued, the policy unfairly hit Indonesia. However, data showing that teens are more likely than adults to smoke cloves (while menthol smokers include vast numbers of adults) was dismissed.

Given these recent WTO rulings spotlighting just how dangerous the existing "trade" agreement model is for an array of non-trade public interest policies, you might expect that the Obama administration would finally start implementing candidate Obama's 2008 election pledges to renegotiate existing agreements and create a new model. Instead, the U.S. is pushing for completion this summer of a nine-nation TPP that contains the same rules. The deal would also empower foreign corporations to privately enforce these rules by suing the U.S. government directly before kangaroo courts, comprised of three private sector lawyers operating under UN and World Bank investor-state arbitration rules.

The American public is uniquely united against more-of-the-same trade deals. Thus, if only for political expediency, the administration must stand with the thousands of Americans who have signed a Consumer Rights Pledge calling on the U.S. to not comply with these illegitimate trade pact rulings, and to "knock it off" on the TPP negotiations that would greatly intensify this problem.

This ruling just adds to the growing evidence that today's "trade" agreements are no longer mainly about trade; they're about corporate power and influence. Chevron is using these corporate power grab terms to try to dodge paying $18 billion to clean up horrific contamination in the Amazon ordered after 18 years of U.S. and Ecuadorian court rulings. Philip Morris is using the system to attack Australian and Uruguayan cigarette plain packaging laws that were designed to discourage smoking.

So what can we do? First, we need to insist that our elected officials stop supporting these corporate power tools branded as trade agreements -- starting with the pernicious TPP proposal. To date, U.S. trade officials have refused even to make the draft TPP text public, even though the 600 official U.S. corporate trade advisers have full access. And, in the short term, we must urge the administration to ignore these WTO rulings.

If there is any silver lining to today's ruling, it is that it will confirm the views of growing numbers of consumers, citizens and governments that the WTO must be shrunk or sunk. There is a path forward: we must put the TPP on hold and renegotiate the WTO's mandate. It's time to craft a real 21st century trade policy.