A few decades ago we began to understand that using tobacco kills, and by now few Americans have any doubt that smoking is bad for us. Public health campaigns replaced the happy talk in cigarette ads with restrictions on advertising and warning labels on the packaging. As a result of those efforts, Americans' smoking rates were cut in half between 1965 and 2010. Countless cases of lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases were averted because the tobacco companies were required to comply with regulations designed to protect the public's health. Shouldn't we expect that this policy will be allowed, even encouraged for other nations around the world?
The unhealthy world of trade agreements has taken another turn for the worse. Today a regional "free trade" proposal, the Trans Pacific Partnership or TPP, is being negotiated with at least 11 nations of the Pacific Rim including the U.S. That agreement aims to secure a binding agreement among signatory countries for "trade" rules that would trump national laws in a wide range of areas, including rights to protect the health of the public. It could require countries to rescind national regulations, even laws that protect public health, in the face of claims that they restrict trade. Regulations, for example, such as those that require cigarette packages to warn about the dangers of smoking.
The idea that a country could be required to give up a public health policy because a tobacco company finds it damaging to their business is a highly questionable concept. And yet, some agreements already in force have resulted in that exact kind of challenge, and may well be successful. Most recently Phillip Morris Asia has sued the government of Australia under the provisions of an investment treaty with Hong Kong, claiming that their profits are damaged by Australia's "plain packaging" legislation for tobacco products, primarily cigarettes. Phillip Morris is asking that Australia either suspend enforcement of that law or pay millions of dollars in compensation to the tobacco company. Similar actions are under way against the governments of Norway and Uruguay; the poorer countries are actually at greater risk because their rates of smoking are on the increase, and their governments are even less able to counter the power of large corporations to bring lawsuits against them.
The provisions that allowed Phillip Morris to sue Australia are echoed in the TPP, along with a host of other provisions that will supersede national laws, making this astounding proposal sound like that scary "one-world" government that conservatives have been concerned about for decades. But this isn't the United Nations calling the shots, it's the megacorporations of the world. Some 600 corporate "advisors" have access to the TPP text and are helping to draft the agreement, but the public, journalists and even members of Congress have been excluded. The secrecy of the process is itself a major concern.
Ironically, most of the TPP's 26 draft chapters don't address trade at all. Some of the most egregious elements mandate limits on non-trade domestic policies, such as the ability of signatory countries to make and enforce regulations about the pricing of medicines or food safety. Under these provisions the big drug and food companies would gain, and the consumers lose. Almost anything that can be construed as a constraint to corporate profits would be a potential target.
So there is a lot going on in the world of trade negotiations, and as frightening as the plans are for the TPP, I'm equally alarmed at the lack of awareness in the US that it's happening. The mainstream press has been remarkably silent, and as a result the negotiations continue with barely a whisper of dissent.
Yet protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999 -- the famous "Battle of Seattle"-- showed that massive numbers of citizens showing their concern can make a difference. Complicated as it sounds, ordinary folks can learn about the TPP from the groups that have organized to fight it, such as the Global Trade Watch of Public Citizen, and the Center for Policy Analysis on Trade and Health. The information is there - and action steps to correct this looming monster are being identified. For example, a consortium of prestigious medical and public health organizations have developed a list of demands to assure that countries can protect their rights to maintain controls on the tobacco industry.
We can support a range of different approaches. Currently there's a push to renew the so-called "fast track" authority of the US president for trade agreements. Fast Track would allow President Obama to negotiate trade deals without consulting Congress and, clearly, without the consent of the citizens of the United States. At the end of multi-year negotiations, the final package would be presented to Congress for a straight up or down vote, with no amendments allowed. We need to learn about and oppose Fast Track for the TPP and any other trade agreements that come along. Or oppose the TPP itself. Trade negotiations are overseen by the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), and it is a simple matter to contact the newly nominated USTR to let him know our concerns.
Tobacco regulation is just one example of how the TPP will have damaging effects on the world we live in. We need to expose the deadly flaws in these behind-closed-doors negotiations now, before it's too late.