Blocking Other Countries’ Anti-smoking Efforts is Wrong

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HERALD LEADER | OP-ED | AUGUST 30, 2015

The United States should not stand in the way of other countries trying to protect themselves from the No. 1 cause of preventable death.

But that’s just what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are demanding as the Obama administration negotiates the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Kentuckian McConnell and others in Congress are defending the continued use of trade agreements to block anti-smoking measures — and brandishing one of their all-time favorite political props: the American tobacco farmer.

It’s safe to assume, however, that their larger concern is the cigarette makers that pour millions of dollars into politics and have made McConnell the Senate’s leading recipient of tobacco-industry money.

McConnell and his allies insist that tobacco should be treated in trade deals like any other agricultural commodity and warn that allowing tobacco to be singled out will put other commodities and industries at risk in the future.

This logic has one big problem: Tobacco is not like any other agricultural commodity or, for that matter, any other legal product. Tobacco stands alone because, used as directed, it will kill you.

If current trends hold, in 15 years, a whopping 85 percent of the projected 8 million people who will die annually from tobacco-related diseases will be in poor or low-income countries, according to the World Health Organization.

The tobacco industry has moved aggressively into the developing world as Americans and Europeans shun smoking.

Luring customers with massive advertising campaigns, the industry also uses trade and investment agreements to beat back public health and education measures, such as warning labels and higher taxes, that have reduced smoking here.

Under past agreements, anti-smoking measures can be challenged and struck down as barriers to free trade.

The expensive prospect of tangling with the industry was enough to back down poor countries such as Togo and Namibia.

Even New Zealand and Canada retreated from tobacco regulations after trade litigation threats. And Australia is embroiled in defending its cigarette-packaging requirements in a legal dispute brought by Philip Morris International.

No wonder at least some of the 11 other TPP countries want an exclusion protecting their anti-smoking efforts from challenge under the trade agreement’s dispute-resolution clause.

McConnell, a TPP booster, has been successfully pushing against a tobacco exclusion and renewed his objections in a July 30 letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman.

Like most trade deals, the TPP is being negotiated in secret, so the U.S. position is unclear. Politico has reported that the U.S. is open to a provision protecting antismoking regulations.

Let’s be clear: No one’s talking about limiting trade or tobacco exports, in leaf or cigarette form. Other countries seek only autonomy to combat smoking’s health and financial costs through widely accepted public health policies.

Kentucky exports about $300 million worth of tobacco leaf annually.

The 15 percent of Kentucky growers who stayed in the business have long been aware of the market risks. After receiving $5 billion through the tobacco settlement and $10 billion as compensation for the end of quotas, American farmers who decided to keep growing tobacco did so with their eyes wide open.

The 1998 tobacco settlement also compensated states for caring for sick smokers. Kentucky has invested half of its settlement in agriculture diversification, to help free farmers from having to financially depend on poisoning other people’s children.