Facing opposition by Big Tobacco and its legislative supporters, the Obama administration has apparently backed down from a proposal to use international trade agreements to preclude the tobacco industry from challenging anti-smoking laws overseas, the investigative website Fair Warning reports.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which coordinates trade policy at the White House, had proposed to include language in the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that would limit the tobacco industry’s ability to use trade pacts to challenge anti-smoking laws in other countries. After an uproar by Big Tobacco, as well as such pro-business groups as the Chamber of Commerce, the White House backed down.

Now the Trade Representative will seek to add language stating that “all trade agreements recognize the authority of countries to protect human life or health—including by regulating tobacco,” but requiring one nation to discuss anti-tobacco laws that might affect the products of another nation.

“In recent years, tobacco companies have invoked trade agreements to challenge the most stringent rules, such as requiring large graphic warnings on packs of cigarettes,” Fair Warning reports.

With countries around the world ramping up their fight to reduce smoking, trade agreements have become a weapon of choice as tobacco companies and their allies seek to thwart the toughest rules. For example, an Australian law requiring that cigarettes be sold in drab generic packs—eliminating distinctive brand logos and colors–has been attacked as violating treaty protections for intellectual property. Top cigarette makers Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco not only challenged the law in Australian courts, but have paid legal fees for three countries—Ukraine, Honduras and Dominican Republic– that have dragged Australia before the World Trade Organization.

Health advocates say the mere threat of a long, costly legal battle could deter low- and middle-income countries from taking strong action to curb smoking. A statement by five groups–including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, and American Cancer Society–voiced bitter disappointment with the new trade office proposal, calling it a “missed opportunity for the United States to lead the fight against this global epidemic.”

—Posted by Scott Martelle

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