Big tobacco should be excluded from the TPPA

The TPPA may stop New Zealand become smokefree on schedule.
REUTERS

The TPPA may stop New Zealand become smokefree on schedule.

OPINION: Most of us are familiar with the cost to personal health from smoking tobacco, and from passive exposure of children and others who have no choice to tobacco smoke. Tobacco is the largest preventable cause of mortality worldwide - every year 6 million people (more than the population of New Zealand) die from smoking, and another 600,000 die from passive exposure to tobacco smoke. Globally, 50 per cent of children are exposed (UN estimates). 

That's why the majority of people, including smokers in this country, want stronger regulation and more taxes. New Zealand doctors and nurses are therefore deeply concerned about the protections and rights given to tobacco corporations by the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) .

But its not just smokers and their families that are adversely affected by tobacco. Few people are aware of the environmental and human costs of farming and processing tobacco particularly in developing countries. Tobacco plants displace food crops, and cause serious nicotine poisoning in farmers and tobacco workers (often children). Curing the green Virginia tobacco leaf requires huge amounts of firewood, mostly obtained in these countries by cutting down forests, and consequently contributing to landslides, water catchment disruption, flooding and loss of biodiversity.

Two tobacco leaf merchants and four multinational cigarette companies control the international tobacco market, and reap massive profits. The corporations are currently using their financial and legal muscle to challenge tobacco control public health legislation in Uruguay, Australia and other countries. Defending this challenge in Uruguay was so expensive that the government was about to repeal the law before being rescued by the Bloomberg Philanthropic Trust and the Gates Foundation.

Australia believes that they were fully entitled to make tobacco plain packaging laws. However it has already cost the Australian government an estimated 50 million dollars  contesting  first part of the tobacco company challenge - simply establishing that there is no basis for that challenge.

Given these facts it is greatly concerning but perhaps not surprising that these tobacco corporations, along with other corporations, have had access to the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement texts that have been denied to New Zealand citizens and health analysts.

Within the United States there have been strong calls from many to "carve" tobacco out of trade agreements. This has been opposed by other politicians protecting the financial interests of their tobacco growing states and the heavyweight US Chamber of Commerce. This lobbying group for large businesses, with its worldwide affiliates, use their influence to challenge tobacco control measures, such as warning labels on cigarette packs. In Ukraine their influence was used to bring a World Trade Organisation dispute against Australia for their plain packaging legislation, even though Ukraine does not export tobacco to Australia.  In Nepal the Chamber affiliates have challenged and delayed the implementation of graphic labels for cigarette packages. It is an organisation that seems willing, even determined to make things difficult for health in poor countries.

The TPPA gives giant tobacco corporations and their ethically-challenged supporting offices unprecedented entry into our country's public health policies.

New Zealand has dragged its feet implementing plain packaging laws for tobacco. Australia took 19 months, Ireland 22 months and the UK 35 months; we're 38 months and still awaiting a second reading of the bill. The most likely reason is the one given by John Key in 2013 - we need to wait and see what happens to the challenge in Australia. In other words we have suffered a "chill" based on our existing agreements, and Australia's case, and here we are about to hand over yet more power to the tobacco corporations. How will TPPA nations like Vietnam have the resources to tackle this issue if we don't?

Globally, there are even bigger risks to health: other investment agreements that will likely cross fertilise with the TPPA. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and PACER Plus negotiations include some of the poorest nations on the planet. If we let the TPPA lock in the ability of big tobacco companies to sue New Zealand we will risk making our Asian and Pacific neighbors (such as Kiribati, Vanuatu, Myanmar and Cambodia) susceptible to that same toxic and unethical power.

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New Zealand is the first nation to set a date to be smokefree.

However, we are not shaping up well to achieve the Government's own target of a Smokefree Aotearoa by 2025.. Our Government needs to be consistent in its commitment to this goal..

We should have nothing to do with an industry that has such a chilling reputation for making its billions from death, disease and environmental degradation. We need to tell them and their American and Japanese representatives that, just as New Zealand rejoices in being nuclear-free, we are determined to become the world's first smokefree nation.

 Philip Pattemore is an associate professor of paediatrics at Otago University, and wrote this on behalf of Doctors for Healthy Trade.

 - The Dominion Post

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