John Oliver Highlights The Ridiculousness Of Corporate Sovereignty Provisions

from the good-for-him dept

Okay, I know that it’s become something of a cliche for blogs and news sites to repost John Oliver clips, but dammit, if the guy doesn’t keep on covering the types of stories that we normally cover around here. I mean, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart used to touch on related topics maybe once every six months or so, whereas Oliver seems to hit on a Techdirt-worthy topic basically every other week (so often we don’t get to all of them!). This past week, he did his big segment on the nasty games that Big Tobacco plays around the globe to market its products to just about everyone. Yes, in the US, most cigarette advertising is blocked, but Big Tobacco has just shifted to more vulnerable populations around the globe. That topic, by itself, isn’t directly in Techdirt’s wheelhouse — but in the middle of the segment, there’s a discussion about corporate sovereignty, and specifically the use by Big Tobacco of “investor state dispute settlement” (ISDS) provisions to allow the big tobacco companies to sue countries for daring to try to regulate cigarettes, advertising or packaging.

The segment on corporate sovereignty starts at around 6 minutes, right after showing examples of ridiculous tobacco commercials that are shown around the globe:

Now countries can try to counteract the influence of that kind of marketing, but if tobacco companies feel threatened, they’ll put them through legal hell. Let me take you on a world tour of how they attack laws intended to protect public health, because it’s kind of amazing.

Let’s start in Australia. In 2011, they passed a plain packaging law, and what that means is this. [Shows (fair use!) news clip describing required packaging of cigarettes with no branding, and scary health pictures]. Australia’s plain packaging law bans tobacco company branding from packaging and replaced it with upsetting photos, such as the toe tag on a corpse, the cancerous mouth, the nightmarish eyeball, or the diseased lung. Now, yes, I’m pretty sure I’d find a healthy lung disgusting, but, that thing does look like you’re trying to breathe through baked ziti, so [instructing staff] take it down! Just take it down!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, since this law was implemented, total consumption of tobacco cigarettes in Australia fell to record lows and… nightmares about eyeballs have risen to record highs. [Instructing staff] Take it down! Take down the demon eye!

To get these laws, though, Australia has had to run a gamut of lawsuits. First, two tobacco companies sued Australia in its highest court to stop them. The result, was a little surprising, as Australia’s attorney general let everyone know. [Shows clip of AG announcing not just the victory, but Big Tobacco having to pay the government’s legal fees.] Yes! Score one for the little guy! Even if that little guy is the sixth largest country in the world by landmass.

And the tobacco companies didn’t just lose. The judges called their case “delusive,” “unreal and synthetic” and said their case had “fatal defects.” ….

But Australia’s legal troubles were just beginning. Because then, Philip Morris Asia got involved. [Shows clips of a news report saying Philip Morris considering using ISDS provisions to take the Australian government to a tribunal claiming it lowered the value of the company’s trademarks].

That’s right. A company was able to sue a country over a public health measure, through an international court. How the fuck is that possible? Well, it’s really a simple explanation. They did it by digging up a 1993 trade agreement between Australia and Hong Kong which had a provision that said Australia couldn’t seize Hong Kong-based companies’ property. So, nine months before the lawsuits started, PMI put its Australian business in the hands of its Hong Kong-based Philip Morris Asia division, and then they sued, claiming that the “seized property” in question, were the trademarks on their cigarette packages.

And you’ve got to give it to them: that’s impressive. Someone should really give those lawyers a pat on the back… and a punch in the face. But, a pat on the back first. Pat, then punch. Pat, punch….

He then goes on to point out how Big Tobacco further got three other countries to file complaints with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against Australia, claiming the plain packaging law violates trade agreements: Honduras, Dominican Republic and Ukraine. Oliver then shows a clip noting that Ukraine does not have any tobacco trade at all with Australia, showing how ridiculous the WTO claim is.

Next, he shows how Big Tobacco is sending threatening letters to other countries, like Uruguay, Togo and Namibia for considering health regulations around tobacco products, even going so far as to totally misrepresent the total loss of its lawsuit in Australia, pretending that it was a victory. Oliver’s researchers got letters that Big Tobacco sent these countries, threatening “an incalculable amount of international trade litigation.”

There’s even more in the video — though it would be great if Oliver also took on the fact that these kinds of ISDS/corporate sovereignty agreements are at the heart of key trade agreements currently being negotiated today by the US and much of the rest of the world in both the TPP agreement and the TTIP agreement.

It’s because of stories like this that we’re so concerned about these corporate sovereignty provisions. Defenders insist they’re necessary to stop countries from absconding with assets built by foreign companies and investors, but that risk tends to be fairly limited, compared to how these agreements are actually being used: to allow corporations to effectively step in and block regulations designed to protect the public.

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Companies: philip morris

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Comments on “John Oliver Highlights The Ridiculousness Of Corporate Sovereignty Provisions”

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Anonymous Coward says:

This is what you get when you are over occupied with international relations.

George Washington predicted shit like this in he farewell address. It’s funny that people really like to hate the rich people but as soon as you say something along the lines of being even slightly isolationist they start spouting the rich BS of it being a world community.

Corporate Sovereignty is the defining reason to never completely sweep all isolationism under the rug. Like everything else, nations need to participate at a level that most benefits the country and in a way that does not allow foreign interests to wreck it the way US can now be wrecked by China.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

To be fair, Washington was more warning America to stay the hell out of Europe’s mess, not anything about trade. He gave the warning for several reasons.

1) At the time America was still a new nation, and Washington feared if we got into another war with Britain or others in Europe we’d lose, and maybe even become their subjects again.

2) At the time Europe was just as much of a chaotic mess as the middle east is today. The Europeans were almost constantly at war with each other. It’s not until after WW2 that Europe finally settled down and become the peaceful continent it is today.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

” It’s not until after WW2 that Europe finally settled down and become the peaceful continent it is today.”

Only because the US and USSR split Europe into essentially two fiefdoms, with only a “cold” war between them (as a ‘hot’ war could have easily turned nuclear). But the US has had a long-term goal and policy of trying to forment revolution throughout the post-Soviet states, and as we’ve most recently seen in the Georgian and Ukrainian “revolutions” — this can easily lead to war.

Jason H says:

John Oliver

The funny thing is, when you read only the text, it reads like your typical rambling conspiracy stuff, but John Oliver brings it to life and conveys it so well, and it’s backed by actual investigative research and is factually true. Nobody else could engage an audience and do this sort of thing like him… he’s great, I can’t wait to see what he is going to do the rest of the season.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

So you’re saying that the attorneys general from Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, all of whom support the investigation of Google, are “bought and paid for by the MPAA”?

I’m afraid you’ll need a citation for each of those instances of libel.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

At least one AG apparently is

and we would have never known about this had it not leaked so who knows how many other AG’s are bought and paid for and by whom.

You need a citation to show that what these AG’s are doing is in the public interest. Comparing countries that try curtail cigarette smokers with Google that’s trying to provide a public service is very different and rather disingenuous. There is no comparison.

and not supporting these specific investigations into Google is different than opposing corporate sovereignty. Countries should have every right to decide what laws they wish to pass without having to worry about corporate sovereignty laws and how their decisions affect the profit margins of some corporation. That’s not to say we have to support the specific laws they do pass just that corporate sovereignty should play no role in whether or not they pass such laws.

but you are deliberately conflating two different things. I expect no less from a deceitful scumbag like yourself.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I will expect you to write a post here declaring your support for the various state attorney generals that want to investigate that giant corporate behemoth, Google.”

You must be talking about the investigation of the accusation that Google is facilitating illegal activity because of search autocomplete.

It’s a farcical accusation for two reasons. First, Google does not write those autocomplete suggestions, the people searching for things do. Second, the CDA (the law that the AGs are claiming Google is in violation of) specifically shields third parties such as Google from liability for what their users write.

So, no, I won’t be supporting the AGs at all. Not because they’re the AGs, nor because it’s about Google, but because the accusation is just stupid on its face.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

“There’s even more in the video — though it would be great if Oliver also took on the fact that these kinds of ISDS/corporate sovereignty agreements are at the heart of key trade agreements currently being negotiated today by the US and much of the rest of the world in both the TPP agreement and the TTIP agreement.”

He might if he were so busy cracking jokes – but then who would listen to him?

Anonymous Coward says:

I have a hard time understanding those “Last Week Tonight” shows. For instance, as this clip starts out, a late-1960s TV commercial is played, and the ‘audience’ is completely silent all the way through, but then when the narrator says “come to Marlboro Country” the audience suddenly busts out in raucous laughter (@ 37 seconds in)

I just don’t get it. How is saying “come to Marlboro country” supposed to be so funny? Perhaps the kid holding the laugh track controls was unaware that the phrase was ubiquitous on television, billboards, newspapers and magazines for many decades?

Or am I missing something?

I like the points John Oliver makes, but the laugh track the show is wrapped in can be so unbearable that I rarely make it through an entire episode.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

It’s kind of a funny thing, that technology has continually advanced the design of stage microphones, one of the goals being that they pick up background (audience) noise as little as possible — which ironically means audience noise needs to be inserted by other means.

“Live” tapings can have microphones placed throughout the audience (particularly aimed in the claque section), recorded on separate tracks, allowing the producers to mix in the precise amount of laughs, cheers, and boos they desire in the final product.

And that’s without even having to resort to “canned laughter” — which is a science and art in itself.

Anonymous Coward says:

…You want to know something even more hilarious?

PMI called Last Week Tonight a parody show not worthy of being actual news. Yes, that’s right, they said the Last Week Tonight (one of the best currently-running pieces of investigative journalism around) “A parody show”.

That’s a little like saying that Walter Cronkite was, “Not worthy of anyone’s time.”

Rupert Pupkin says:

And here we go with the “John Oliver DESTROYS [x]” pieces.
You should just devote this whole site to Oliver. That and pieces on how anyone disagreeing with you on “net neutrality” must necessarily be in Verizon’s backpocket.

And I love how people are calling this “investigative journalism”, as if Oliver did any of the fact-finding or investigative work on this. He Ed Schultz with jokes(intentional ones, at least).

Me says:

WTO challenges to tobacco plain packaging

Some additional info from the Aussie gov’s website (

“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has primary responsibility for the Australian Government’s defence of the tobacco plain packaging measure in the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Office of International Law within the Attorney-General’s Department is providing DFAT with additional support.

“The WTO Dispute Settlement Body has established dispute settlement panels at the requests of Ukraine (on 28 September 2012), Honduras (on 25 September 2013), Indonesia (on 26 March 2014), Dominican Republic (on 25 April 2014) and Cuba (on 25 April 2014) in relation to Australia’s tobacco plain packaging measure. The five complainants are arguing that the measure is inconsistent with Australia’s WTO obligations under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994.

“To date, a record number of WTO members (in excess of 40) have joined those disputes as third parties.

“… The Chair of the panel informed the Dispute Settlement Body on 10 October 2014 that the panel expects to issue its final report to the parties in the second half of 2016.”

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