Editorial: Obama missed a chance to stem tobacco's spread

Published: Friday, Aug. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 12A

Smoking rates are below 13 percent in California. Tobacco use is sinking across the country and in other wealthy countries. What's a multinational tobacco company to do?

With profits to make and shareholders to please, the tobacco industry peddles its product in poorer nations and lately is seeking to use international treaties and U.S. trade policy to keep from losing more market share.

Rather than stand up to Big Tobacco, President Barack Obama's Office of the U.S. Trade Representative last week sidestepped the issue by not explicitly recognizing tobacco as uniquely harmful to human health, says FairWarning, a nonprofit investigative online publication that reports extensively about tobacco issues.

In essence, the trade representative initially proposed what every health-conscious Californian knows – that tobacco is uniquely harmful to human health, and that sovereign states and nations should be free to regulate it as they see fit. That language was watered down, in the face of lobbying by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and tobacco state congressional members.

The administration responded last week by announcing more limited language, in preparation for another round of Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks opening today in Brunei. The U.S. is one of 12 Pacific Rim nations engaged in the discussions. Under the sanded-down language, before one member country challenges the tobacco regulation of another, health officials of both nations must meet to discuss the measure.

As developed nations try to restrict tobacco use, the tobacco industry invokes trade policy in creative and nefarious ways, claiming, for example, that Australia violated its intellectual property rights by restricting logos from cigarette packaging and requiring graphic warning labels that picture cancer victims.

Rather than challenge Australia's regulations in Australian courts, major tobacco companies have encouraged Ukraine, Honduras and Dominican Republic to challenge Australia's regulations before the World Trade Organization, FairWarning reported in November.

Then there is the matter of Uruguay, a South American country with a population less than a tenth of California's, and one that can ill afford a drawn-out fight with a rich tobacco company before an international tribunal.

But that's where it finds itself. Philip Morris International, operating through its Swiss subsidiary, is arguing before a World Bank tribunal that Uruguay's packaging requirements violate a bilateral treaty. The matter is pending.

In a stark illustration of the tobacco industry's strategy, The Associated Press reported in an article that ran in The Sacramento Bee on Thursday that the world's major tobacco companies are moving factories into Myanmar, an impoverished nation of 60 million people where 45 percent of adult men smoke and where children as young as 12 regularly buy cigarettes.

The article pointed out that "awareness about the health hazards is low, tobacco controls are weakly enforced, and the anti-smoking lobby is effectively a one-man act," that act being 89-year-old Tin Maung. In short, Myanmar will be a rich vein for tobacco companies as it emerges from years of military dictatorship.

Anti-smoking organizations led by Tobacco Free Kids called the Obama administration's watered-down stance in the trade talks a missed opportunity. They're correct. The ability of nations to regulate tobacco will become increasingly relevant as the anti-smoking movement spreads, and as the tobacco industry uses every tool at its disposal to fight regulations.

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