by Myron Levin, FairWarning

Health advocates are blasting the Obama administration for watering down a proposal aimed at keeping the tobacco industry from exploiting trade agreements to fight tough anti-smoking rules.

The criticism follows word that the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative will abandon efforts to include language in a pending Pacific Rim trade deal that could make nations less vulnerable to such industry attacks. It would have recognized tobacco products as uniquely harmful and made it harder for the industry or its national allies to charge that aggressive anti-smoking measures are an undue restriction on trade.

The trade office last year had announced its intent to include a “safe harbor’’ for tobacco regulation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping free trade deal being negotiated by the U.S. and 11 other countries, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. But as reported by FairWarning, the proposal triggered powerful protest from top business groups and tobacco state congressmen, who described it as a slippery slope that could lead to restrictions on products vital to U.S. trade.

Stung by the protest, U.S. officials then delayed offering the proposal, allowing 15 months and eight negotiating rounds to pass while considering what to do. As recently as last week, the trade office said it was undecided, telling FairWarning it was “still considering stakeholder input.”

However, trade officials now say they’ve decided to ditch the original proposal in favor of far more limited language they will offer during the weeklong negotiating round to be held in Brunei beginning Friday. That language will state that all trade agreements recognize the authority of countries to protect human life or health—including by regulating tobacco. A spokeswoman said the U.S. negotiators will also seek to require that before one member country challenges the tobacco regulation of another, health officials of both nations will meet to discuss the measure.

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. “

Corporate Accountability International, a Boston-based advocacy group, called the proposal “another unfortunate example of how U.S. trade policy is geared more toward protecting the profits of an industry whose products kill nearly six million people every year than toward protecting people’s health in the U.S. and across the Pacific Rim.’’

Business groups that strongly opposed the original proposal included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Emergency Committee for American Trade, and the National Association of Manufacturers. Representatives of the groups did not return phone calls

FairWarning ( is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit news organization focused on public health and safety issues.

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