President Obama and U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Froman have the opportunity to curb the tobacco epidemic forever. The Senate voted to pass the Trade Promotion Authority Bill (TPA or Fast-Track) which creates an expedited process to get trade bills through Congress, paving the way for Obama's signature.
Now that Fast-Track has passed, the President and Ambassador Froman will turn their attention to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), an emerging trade and investment agreement being negotiated by the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. The agreement, once completed, will be the largest regional trading block in the world and will serve as the model for 21st century trade agreements. How tobacco is treated now will set the precedent for how tobacco will be treated in TTIP (The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), an even larger agreement, and in future trade agreements worldwide.
As the only consumer good that kills half of its consumers when used exactly as intended, tobacco has become a major issue in the TPP negotiations, with public health and other groups banding together to call for unique treatment of tobacco products. "The purpose of international trade agreements is the free movement of goods, and tobacco is no good," stated Prakit Vathesatogkit of Thailand during the global tobacco treaty negotiations in Moscow this past October.
The outcomes of the TPP negotiations will have a huge impact on tobacco control and global health. The tobacco industry has long used litigation, and trade agreements in particular, as a tool to block public health and tobacco control laws. For example, Philip Morris International created "legal chill" by threatening to sue Togo, one of the 10 poorest countries on earth, if Togo implemented graphic health warning labels on cigarette packs. Additionally, Australia and Uruguay are currently being sued over their tobacco packaging laws.
In 2011, two U.S. tobacco companies sued the FDA over an advisory report that simply considered a ban of menthol cigarettes. The tobacco industry is very comfortable using litigation as a tool, and if tobacco is included in the TPP, tobacco companies will use the TPP to their full advantage to prevent governments from enacting policies that protect the health of their citizens.
The TPP represents a crucial moment for tobacco control. President Obama and USTR Ambassador Froman should insist that tobacco be granted a full "carve out" from the TPP and from all other trade agreements. A "carve out" means that tobacco products will be excluded from the right and benefits of the trade agreement, providing governments with protection to regulate tobacco inside their borders without fear of being sued by the tobacco industry.
Furthermore, all of the TPP countries (except the U.S.) have ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a legally binding international treaty, and have an obligation to implement its measures. Mary Assunta, Senior Policy Advisor of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) says, "[FCTC] Article 5.3 Guidelines, Recommendation 7.1 says the tobacco industry must not be given any incentives to run its business. Hence the TPPA, a new agreement, should reflect this clause." The U.S. has not ratified the FCTC, but as a signatory, the U.S. should strive to reach the tobacco control best practices set out in the FCTC.
Unlike other consumer products included in trade agreements that can become harmful when abused or overused, there is no "safe" use or amount of tobacco. Tobacco is the only consumer product that kills when used exactly as intended. The tobacco industry seeks to increase consumption of tobacco, while ASH and its public health allies seek a higher level of global health. There is no "happy medium" to be found between the tobacco industry and the public health community.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1 billion people will die from tobacco this century unless drastic actions are taken. One of those critical actions to take is carving tobacco products out of trade agreements. It is impossible to predict how many lives hang in the balance of the trade debate, but it is certainly millions worldwide. ASH encourages President Obama and Ambassador Froman to utilize TPP has a tool in the global fight against tobacco.
ASH Executive Director Laurent Huber says "The TPP is a moment in history for Obama – he is making a choice about how to treat tobacco that will echo for decades to come. Hopefully that choice is to protect health over profit and carve tobacco out of the TPP."
Action on Smoking and Health