At hundreds of convenience stores and retail outlets in Iowa, the drug trade has been and continues to be legal and in full force. Lowly paid wage workers ply a trade in tobacco, a deadly product that continues to be widely used. Where the author lives, workers queue up at the counter before their shift begins, selecting their preferred brand of cigarettes, snuff, snus, cigars or chewing tobacco. The clerk asks, “will one pack be enough?” Tobacco is the only legal consumer product that kills when used as intended. Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide, accounting for 6 million preventable deaths annually, and is a major contributor to the global pandemic of non-communicable diseases.
This may seem like old news, but the tobacco industry is still at work, caught up in the secretive trade talks going on this week in Brunei. While many of us are finishing up summer work to take vacation, and students are returning to campus, U.S. corporations are attempting to gain unfettered access to markets in 12 countries as part of the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership (TPTP). Tobacco trade is just one of the issues. (Read the Sierra Club memo on environmental issues here).
The tobacco trade issue reduces to a key point, according to Dr. John Rachow of Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility, “this is a critically threatening attempt to restore unlimited international trafficking of tobacco, the greatest completely preventable cause of human death on the planet.”
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman released a statement in which he wrote, “this proposal will, for the first time in a trade agreement, address specifically the public health issues surrounding tobacco– preserving the ability of the United States and other TPP countries to regulate tobacco and to apply appropriate public health measures, and bringing health and trade officials together if tobacco-related issues arise– while remaining consistent with our trade policy objectives of negotiating a comprehensive agreement that does not create a precedent for excluding agricultural products.” Including reference to tobacco products in a trade agreement is the opposite of what public health officials want.
The Center for Policy Analysis on Trade and Health wrote, “the medical, health care, and public health community has consistently supported removing tobacco, tobacco products, and tobacco control measures from trade agreements as the most effective solution (to enabling participating countries to exercise their sovereignty to reduce tobacco use and prevent the harm it causes to public health).”
The tobacco industry likes adding the language because by giving tobacco products special treatment, it creates loopholes that could easily be exploited to circumvent restrictions on tobacco products in participating countries. By offering language on tobacco in the TPTP, the Obama administration is capitulating on public health to get a deal done that favors the tobacco industry.