Make a Killing? US FTAs and Big Tobacco

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/26/2013 10:39:00 AM
There is a debate surrounding the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership expansion about whether participants' policies aimed at curbing tobacco use will be dismantled in the name of free trade. Large American tobacco companies--collectively known as "Big Tobacco"--have certainly not shied away from using texts of trade liberalization measures in faulting curbs to their unfettered access to emerging markets.  Outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been especially vocal about what he believes is a major assault on global health led by the United States.

As per current TPP drafts, some argue that negotiating LDCs will be made to relent on the sorts of public policies that have proven effective Stateside in reducing smoking:
The proposal put forward by the US Trade Representative (USTR) last week in Brunei would reduce prices for US tobacco in low- and middle-income countries and make it more difficult for these countries to enforce anti-tobacco policies like package warnings and advertising and marketing restrictions.   This proposal would impact the nine TPP countries – Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States -- six of these fall into the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific Region, which had the highest smoking rate among men in 2009. 

To put the implications of this proposal into perspective, consider these two points: Tobacco use caused 100 million deaths in the 20th century.  If current trends persist, it is projected to cause 1 billion deaths in the 21st century.  More than 80% of those future tobacco-related deaths will occur in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Tobacco use in the United States is steadily declining, due largely to widespread anti-tobacco campaigns and stringent anti-smoking policies – the same kinds of policies that the TPP will make difficult to enforce in developing countries.

So, why is the US effectively hindering the export of its good anti-tobacco policies to the LMICs that need them most?  A few key issues have risen to the surface during this debate. A “carve-out” for tobacco – where tobacco would simply be excluded from the terms of the TPP agreement – was proposed by Malaysia and makes sense. But the USTR worries that a carve-out would set a precedent that could be used to block a variety of other US exports on health grounds.
In other words, how exceptional is tobacco based on health grounds? The fear is that all sorts of products would be excluded by other countries and dilute the FTA. Left unresolved, the tobacco issue may even spoil TPP negotiations altogether:
The White House has tried to finesse the issue, recently proposing that the TPP agreement acknowledge tobacco as a health concern but otherwise treat it no differently from other products. That compromise has satisfied no one. Health advocates are furious that the White House dropped its previous proposal for a stronger tobacco control exception in the TPP agreement. The business community opposes any special treatment for tobacco. With that controversy spilling into the press and threatening the conclusion of the TPP talks—the Obama administration's signature international economic initiative [...]

As the tobacco industry's tactics on trade shifted, the controversy reignited. Tobacco companies began using trade and investment agreements to file legal challenges to block new cigarette labeling and advertising restrictions. Australia is fighting four different trade and investment cases against its cigarette packaging law. Similar cases have been filed against Norway and Uruguay and threatened against Togo. Investment disputes are expensive and the outcomes can be unpredictable. Many developing countries do not have the expertise or resources to fight. Even New Zealand and Canada backed away from planned tobacco regulations in the face of litigation threats.
 Thomas Bollyky of the CFR's suggestions in making a limited exception seem to make sense:
  • This exception must explicitly encompass the full range of tobacco control measures addressed under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and permitted under U.S. laws.
  • This exception should be limited to nondiscriminatory tobacco control measures. An exemption from legal challenge cannot serve as a pretext for TPP countries to favor domestic cigarette producers. This condition is consistent with overall U.S. trade policy and the terms of the 2001 U.S. executive order on tobacco and trade.
  • This exception must not include the cross-reference that exists in most U.S. trade agreements to the health exceptions in World Trade Organization agreements. Such references might inappropriately interfere with tobacco litigation already filed under those other agreements against Australia and other TPP countries.
My take is that fair warning is appropriate concerning the possible effects of cigarette smoking and ought not to be sacrificed to a distortion of the term "liberalization." Consumer interests are not well-served by hiding the facts about the health consequences of cigarette smoking and arguing otherwise is a sham. Smoke if you must, but do so while knowing the possible consequences.

Add this to the already lengthy list of obstacles to TPP.