It's been rumored
for years, but reports out of Atlanta suggest that it's now confirmed that in order to finalize
the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, everyone agreed to carve tobacco out of the corporate sovereignty system, better known as ISDS (investor state dispute settlement). These systems allow companies to sue countries for passing regulations that the companies feel harm their ability to profit -- and tobacco companies have already filed ISDS complaints
in a few countries that have pushed to put health warnings on cigarette packages.
While some health activists have cheered on
this carve out -- it appears that almost everyone else is pissed off. Not because they think that Big Tobacco should be shaking down countries that pass anti-smoking laws (though, there may be some of that), but because they recognize the problems that occur when governments can start to set up trade deals that "carve out" certain industries. It's opening up a huge can of worms. Even some supporters of corporate sovereignty/ISDS are worried about what it means when one particular industry can just be excluded entirely from the process. Two of the biggest supporters of ISDS and TPP in Congress, Senators Mitch McConnell and Orrin Hatch, have both warned that the US should not carve out tobacco. Here's McConnell
a few months ago, standing up for those poor, poor tobacco farmers:
“It is essential as you work to finalize the TPP, you allow Kentucky tobacco to realize the same economic benefits and export potential other U.S. agricultural commodities will enjoy with a successful agreement.”
And here's Hatch
actually making a fairly salient point about the carve out:
“Although I don’t support tobacco at all, I still think it was essential,” Hatch said. “It’ll cost us some votes. And every vote is essential. And there are other things I am very concerned about. I’ve committed to read the bill, and I will read it, but right now I’m leaning against it.”
That doesn't bode well for the agreement, given that Hatch was a huge supporter of the TPP. Another Senator, Thom Tillis, has pointed out that carving out one industry opens up the possibility of carving out others
“I’ll not only vote against it, I’ll work hard to have it defeated if it goes in the final agreement.... Once you carve out someone from dispute settlement agreements, then who’s next?”
And the tobacco carve-out, believe it or not, seems to be one thing that both big business and big labor agree on, though for entirely different reasons. The US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are totally against it
we ask all of the TPP governments to reject the exclusion of products from the coverage of the TPP and its enforcement mechanism.... Such exclusions are unnecessary and would be highly damaging to the international rules based trading system and the prospects for the TPP.
And here was the AFL-CIO
opposing the entire ISDS mechanism, and noting that the tobacco carve-out just highlights the problems of ISDS. Whereas Senator Tillis worried about "who's next" to get carved out, the AFL-CIO is pointing out that maybe there should be a lot more.
Any industry-specific carve-out will not address the serious structural problems inherent in the system itself. Issues of broad public interest should not be viewed through the narrow lens of trade and investment at all, let alone decided by unaccountable private panels. Systems of justice should be transparent and accessible on an equal basis. ISDS is anything but: Only foreign investors can use it and there are no requirements that affected communities be allowed to participate or even have their view considered. In many cases, there often are not even requirements that hearings or decisions be made available to the public at all! Even in the case of clear legal error, it is almost impossible to reverse a decision.
Indeed, as Sean Flynn pointed out
just last week, carving out tobacco really just enforces how dangerous corporate sovereignty really is:
The new exception validates, rather than assuages, the concerns of those who have been criticizing ISDS systems for many years. Without express carve outs, ISDS provisions do threaten common health and safety regulations.
The carve out does nothing to halt the disturbing recent trend of companies using ISDS provisions in trade agreements to enforce international intellectual property norms through ISDS tribunals. This is, indeed, the claim at the heart of the tobacco cases now being litigated in ISDS systems. The claim is that tobacco regulations requiring plain packaging violate the trademark rights of tobacco companies protected by the World Trade Organization agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly has also claimed that the denial of a new use patent on an old (off-patent) medicine violates rights granted by TRIPS and the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Meanwhile, US trade officials are, of course, trying to tap dance around the fact that basically everyone absolutely hates this. The USTR has tried to pretend this isn't a big deal because tobacco is "unique."
The U.S. Government seeks to include this language because tobacco is a unique product – it is highly addictive, always harmful to human health, and the single most preventable cause of death in the world. Recognizing these facts about tobacco through the TPP will represent an important step forward for public health in the international trade community.
It's true that tobacco can be a serious health concern, but shouldn't we be raising questions about why this procedure is no good for tobacco companies, but just dandy for every other industry -- including some that produce harmful products? Or those like pharmaceutical companies who are jacking up prices to keep necessary medicines out of the hands of the poor?
Oh, and then there are those who are in complete denial, who are insisting that there really isn't a carve-out
for tobacco, even though there almost certainly is (we can't say for sure, of course, because the documents are secret):
“TPP will not discriminate against any agricultural commodity nor will it exclude tobacco. On the contrary, TPP will provide protections to ensure that governments can implement tobacco control measures, while guaranteeing that tobacco has the same legal status as any other product,” a U.S. official told CQ Roll Call last week.
In short, the whole tobacco carve-out situation is a microcosm of the problems with the TPP. You have a terrible idea (corporate sovereignty) mixed with a weak attempt to appease health activists (carve out tobacco), that basically fixes nothing and satisfies no one. And, now, the same Senators in Congress who demanded the fast track authority be granted, which ties their own arms behind their backs in terms of changing the agreement, are threatening to force this change, even though they've already given up the power to do so.