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.
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.