Big Tobacco Stalls Poor Countries' Health Laws

Article excerpt

Tobacco companies are warning developing countries that are ill- equipped for costly, prolonged legal battles that their laws violate trade treaties, according to public health experts and officials.

Tobacco companies are pushing back against a worldwide rise in antismoking laws, using a little-noticed legal strategy to delay or block regulation. The industry is warning countries that their tobacco laws violate an expanding web of trade and investment treaties, raising the prospect of costly, prolonged legal battles, health advocates and officials said.

The strategy has gained momentum in recent years as smoking rates in rich countries have fallen and tobacco companies have sought to maintain access to fast-growing markets in developing countries. Industry officials say that there are only a few cases of active litigation, and that giving a legal opinion to governments is routine for major players whose interests will be affected.

But tobacco opponents say the strategy is intimidating low- and middle-income countries from tackling one of the gravest health threats they face: smoking. They also say the legal tactics are undermining the world's largest global public health treaty, the W.H.O. Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which aims to reduce smoking by encouraging limits on the advertising, packaging and sale of tobacco products. More than 170 countries have signed it since it took effect in 2005.

More than five million people die annually of smoking-related causes, more than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined, according to the World Health Organization.

Alarmed about rising smoking rates among young women, Namibia, in southern Africa, passed a tobacco control law in 2010 but quickly found itself bombarded with stern warnings from the tobacco industry that the new statute violated the country's obligations under trade treaties.

"We have bundles and bundles of letters from them," said Namibia's health minister, Dr. Richard Kamwi.

Three years later, the government, fearful of a punishingly expensive legal battle, has yet to carry out a single major provision of the law, like limiting advertising or placing large health warnings on cigarette packaging.

The issue is particularly urgent now as the United States completes talks on a major new trade treaty with 11 Pacific Rim countries that aims to be a model for the rules of international commerce. Administration officials say they want the new treaty to raise standards for public health. They single out tobacco as a health concern, wording that upset the United States Chamber of Commerce, which said that the inclusion would leave the door open for other products, like soda or sugar, to be heavily regulated in other countries.

"Our goal in this agreement is to protect the legitimate health regulations that treaty countries want to pursue from efforts by tobacco companies to undermine them," Michael B. Froman, the United States trade representative, said in a telephone interview. The language is not yet final, he said.

But public health advocates say the current wording would not stop countries from being sued when they adopt strong tobacco control measures, though some trade experts said it might make the companies less likely to win. This fall, more than 50 members of the United States House of Representatives and about a dozen members of the Senate sent letters to the Obama administration expressing concern.

Tobacco consumption more than doubled in the developing world from 1970 to 2000, according to the United Nations. Much of the increase was in China, but there has also been substantial growth in Africa, where smoking rates have traditionally been low. More than three-quarters of the world's smokers now live in the developing world.

Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the W.H.O., said in a speech last year that legal actions against Uruguay, Norway and Australia were "deliberately designed to instill fear" in countries trying to reduce smoking. …