If you’ve never heard of the Office of the United States Trade Representative, you aren’t alone. The USTR is a department of the executive branch that negotiates trade agreements, but rarely makes the popular news. Until now.
An editorial in the journal Addiction outlines how a new agreement made by this office with other countries may change the way alcohol and tobacco are regulated in the US and elsewhere. To understand how this can happen, it’s important to realize that international trade policies amount to treaties. And treaties have a force in law that trumps the US Constitution where they apply.
In this case, the trade agreement is with the countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The member countries include: the United States, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Agreements made through this organization apply to trade relationships between these countries and the purpose of the collaboration is to support trade, promote innovation and aid in economic growth.
According to reports, the TPP agreement will have provisions on taxing, manufacture and export/import of both tobacco and alcohol products. With detailed rules and regulations, many driven by corporate interests and pro-alcohol/tobacco, the agreement will remove the ability to make new policy at a national level. Because the trade agreement trumps policies in individual countries, control is lost over things like distribution, sale, advertising, promotion and investments.
The American Medical Association, as well as the Public Health Association of Australia have both objected to addictive substances (including pharmaceuticals, along with alcohol and tobacco) being included in the agreement. They also point out that public health issues in general may be affected by employment and resource distribution contained in the agreement.
The root objection is the loss of direct control over how alcohol and tobacco can be marketed. Recent rule-making in both Australia and the US have included serious warnings (even pictures) on cigarette packages and restrictions on advertising. Similar rules are in place about how alcohol is handled domestically. With an international agreement however, these regulations may be tossed out in one fell swoop.
For now, the details of the plan remain secret.