Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why Is Obama Protecting The Tobacco Companies' Deadly Profits?


A deal with Obama?

I'm just back from my little Tuscan summer adventure. I rented a house in the countryside, near the small town of Montespertoli in the Chianti region, with some friends. It wasn't my first time in Italy. I used to live in Innsbruck, Austria, one of the planet's most boring towns, and I would escape through the Brenner Pass down into Italy at every opportunity. Years later, my company had an office in Milan and I rarely ever missed a chance to go visit. I've also made a point of spending a month in Rome, a month in Sicily and plenty of time in Venice and Tuscany over the years. One thing that I'll always remember about Italy is that even when other European countries started cutting back on smoking, the Italians were still puffing away. On this trip I don't recall ever seeing someone smoking. In fact, one of my friends. Mieke, who lives in Amsterdam and was part of this trip, was a chain smoker who I don't recall ever seeing without a cigarette-- until this trip. I never saw her light up once. The world is a better place and fewer people are getting tobacco-related diseases.

But American tobacco giants still see overseas markets as an opportunity to spread disease and death for profit-- with impunity. Republicans have traditionally made certain they could do that-- with impunity. But Friday Mayor Michael Bloomberg took to the pages of the NY Times to accuse President Obama of taking on the function for the GOP. Profits for tobacco giants, death and disease around the world courtesy of America.
Last year I endorsed President Obama for re-election largely because of his commitment to putting science and public health before politics. But now the Obama administration appears to be on the verge of bowing to pressure from a powerful special-interest group, the tobacco industry, in a move that would be a colossal public health mistake and potentially contribute to the deaths of tens of millions of people around the world.

Although the president’s signature domestic issue has been health-care reform, his legacy on public health will be severely tarnished-- at a terrible cost to the poor in the developing world-- unless his administration reverses course on this issue.

Today in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, representatives from the United States and 11 other nations begin the latest round of negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade agreement. The pact is intended to lower tariffs and other barriers to commerce, a vitally important economic goal. But if it is achieved at the expense of people’s health, the United States and countries around the world will be worse off for it.

The early drafts of the agreement included a “safe harbor” provision protecting nations that have adopted regulations on tobacco-- like package warnings and advertising and marketing restrictions-- because of “the unique status of tobacco products from a health and regulatory perspective.” This provision would have prevented the tobacco industry from interfering with governments’ sovereign right to protect public health through tobacco control laws.

Countries (and cities) that have adopted such regulations have had great success reducing smoking rates and saving lives. In New York City, where we have adopted some of the most comprehensive tobacco policies in the world, the smoking rate among adults has fallen by nearly one-third, and among high school students it has been cut in half. This progress helped to increase average life expectancy: in 2010, it was 80.9 years in the city, more than two years longer than in the country as a whole.

This week, however, the Obama administration bowed to pressure from the tobacco industry and dumped the safe harbor provision from the trade compact. The tobacco industry was joined by other business interest groups that were fearful that the safe harbor provision would lead to other products’ being singled out in future trade accords.

So instead of the safe harbor, the Obama administration is now calling for a clause requiring that before a government can challenge another’s tobacco regulation under the treaty, their health authorities must “discuss the measure.” The administration will also try to ensure that a general exception for matters to protect human life or health (typical in trade agreements) applies specifically to tobacco regulation.

But these are weak half-measures at best that will not protect American law-- and the laws of other countries-- from being usurped by the tobacco industry, which is increasingly using trade and investment agreements to challenge domestic tobacco control measures.

If the Obama administration’s policy reversal is allowed to stand, not only will cigarettes be cheaper for the 800 million people in the countries affected by the trade pact, but multinational tobacco corporations will be able to challenge those governments-- including America’s-- for implementing lifesaving public health policies. This would not only put our tobacco-control regulations in peril, but also create a chilling effect that would prevent further action, which is desperately needed.

Tobacco use causes more deaths around the world than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. If nothing is done, one billion people will die of tobacco use by the end of this century. Through my philanthropy, I have supported grass-roots efforts overseas to discourage tobacco use. Bangladesh, for instance, has enacted new rules that are a big step toward banning smoking in public places and on all modes of transportation. In Vietnam, we helped build public support for comprehensive new legislation that includes some of the most effective tobacco-control techniques, like advertising bans and graphic warning labels on packages.

But if the trade pact proceeds without the safe harbor provision, this progress will be jeopardized, a devastating setback for the global effort to reduce tobacco use, particularly because the signatories to the trade pact include nations-- like the United States, Australia and Vietnam-- that have some of the world’s strongest tobacco control measures. If the Obama administration caves, the tobacco rules of its own Food and Drug Administration will be subject to challenge.
Last year Big Tobacco spent $2,837,315 in campaign contributions in congressional races. In the House, $1,430,921 went to 182 Republicans and $352,750 went to 67 conservative Democrats. These were the dozen worst Tobacco whores in the House, none of whom support any of Obama's policies ever:

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