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“They’re trying to intimidate everybody”

December 13, 2013


The New York Times today made the tobacco industry’s latest bullying tactic front page news.

The Times story by Sabrina Tavernise shows how tobacco companies are fighting nations’ laws to reduce tobacco use by challenging them as violations of international trade and investment agreements. These efforts are at aimed at defeating measures to reverse soaring smoking rates, especially in low- and middle-income countries with limited resources to fight back.

“They’re trying to intimidate everybody,” said Jonathan Lieberman, director of the McCabe Center for Law and Cancer in Australia.

The Times details how tobacco companies have threatened several African countries with trade lawsuits if they act to reduce tobacco use. Namibia is one example:

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.

But Namibia isn’t giving up. “We have decided to put our foot down. If they want to go to court, we will see them there,” Dr. Kamwi said.

Big Tobacco’s tactics underscore the need for the United States and other countries to include language in trade agreements that protects nations’ authority to adopt tobacco control measures. The U.S. initially proposed to include such language in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement it is negotiating with 11 other countries, then backed off and offered a much weaker proposal.

The Times story shows why the U.S. must support stronger protection for tobacco control measures. Unless nations take effective action, tobacco will kill one billion people worldwide this century. The U.S. should be leading the fight against this global epidemic.