Today in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, representatives from the United States and 11 other nations begin the latest round of negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade agreement. The pact is intended to lower tariffs and other barriers to commerce, a vitally important economic goal. But if it is achieved at the expense of people’s health, the United States and countries around the world will be worse off for it.
The early drafts of the agreement included a “safe harbor” provision protecting nations that have adopted regulations on tobacco — like package warnings and advertising and marketing restrictions — because of “the unique status of tobacco products from a health and regulatory perspective.” This provision would have prevented the tobacco industry from interfering with governments’ sovereign right to protect public health through tobacco control laws.
Countries (and cities) that have adopted such regulations have had great success reducing smoking rates and saving lives. In New York City, where we have adopted some of the most comprehensive tobacco policies in the world, the smoking rate among adults has fallen by nearly one-third, and among high school students it has been cut in half. This progress helped to increase average life expectancy: in 2010, it was 80.9 years in the city, more than two years longer than in the country as a whole.
This week, however, the Obama administration bowed to pressure from the tobacco industry and dumped the safe harbor provision from the trade compact. The tobacco industry was joined by other business interest groups that were fearful that the safe harbor provision would lead to other products’ being singled out in future trade accords.
So instead of the safe harbor, the Obama administration is now calling for a clause requiring that before a government can challenge another’s tobacco regulation under the treaty, their health authorities must “discuss the measure.” The administration will also try to ensure that a general exception for matters to protect human life or health (typical in trade agreements) applies specifically to tobacco regulation.