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
"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
"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
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
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. …