WASHINGTON Aug 22 A U.S. trade proposal aimed
at eliminating foreign tariffs on U.S. tobacco products while
preserving the right of governments to adopt anti-smoking
regulations is drawing fire from opposing sides - public health
and business groups.
The American Cancer Society and allied organizations said
the plan would give tobacco companies a new tool to challenge
government anti-smoking measures, while business groups such as
the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau
Federation said it would weaken a tenet of international trade
law that many U.S. exporters rely on to sell goods abroad.
U.S. trade negotiators will offer the proposal in talks
beginning on Friday in Brunei on the Trans-Pacific Partnership
(TPP), a proposed free trade agreement between the United
States, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Australia, New
Zealand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Brunei.
Washington hopes to wrap up the proposed pact by the end of
the year. The Brunei meeting is the 19th round in a negotiation
that has already lasted more than three years.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, in a statement,
defended the tobacco proposal, which he said reflected input
from a "wide range of American stakeholders," including members
of Congress, health advocates and farmers.
The proposal preserves "the ability of the United States and
other TPP countries to regulate tobacco and to apply appropriate
public health measures" while maintaining the U.S. objective of
negotiating a comprehensive trade agreement that does not
exclude any agricultural product, Froman said.
The plan also reflects the U.S. government view that tobacco
"is a unique product - it is highly addictive, always harmful to
human health, and the single most preventable cause of death in
the world," said Bill Corr, deputy secretary of the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services.
A U.S. trade official, speaking on condition he not be
identified, said crafting the proposal had been hard because of
conflicting pressures on the health and trade policy side.
The resulting compromise goes further than previous trade
agreements in protecting tobacco regulations, while still
targeting foreign tobacco tariffs for elimination, he said.
Some TPP countries, such as Australia, Chile, Peru and
Singapore, already have individual trade deals with the United
States that phased out their tobacco tariffs.
But anti-smoking groups wanted the Obama administration to
completely exclude tobacco from the TPP pact, which would have
allowed countries like Vietnam and Malaysia that still have
tariffs on U.S. tobacco products to keep them.
Excluding tobacco from the pact also would have prevented
tobacco companies from using the TPP to challenge anti-smoking
regulations, said John Stewart, director of anti-smoking
operations at Corporate Accountability International, a
Boston-based corporate watchdog organization.
Instead, the United States wants to include a provision in
the TPP pact making clear that a "general exception" giving
governments the right to take necessary action to protect human
life or health specifically applies to tobacco health measures.
In another nod to health advocates, Washington is also
proposing to require government-to-government talks between
health authorities before any member of the TPP pact can
challenge another member's tobacco regulations.
Anti-smoking groups including the American Lung Association,
American Heart Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free
Kids criticized the proposal as too weak.
"The end result is that the Obama Administration's strong
commitment to reducing tobacco use in the United States will
remain vulnerable to international trade challenges, and other
trading partners will remain vulnerable to such challenges as
well," they said in a joint statement.
The groups said they are wary of the TPP agreement because
the tobacco industry has used other trade and investment pacts
to challenge anti-smoking measures in the United States,
Australia, Uruguay, Ireland, Norway and Turkey.
On the other side, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its
allies said they were worried by the precedent set by
specifically identifying tobacco regulations as an area where
governments can take necessary measure to protect public health.
That could encourage other governments "to propose
additional product-specific references," which could be used to
block a variety of U.S. exports on health grounds, the groups
including the Emergency Committee for American Trade said in a
letter urging Froman to abandon the proposal.
They argued the standard general exception used in trade
agreements dating back to 1947 should be enough to address any
concerns about protecting tobacco regulations.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)