Trade rules get tricky when tobacco is involved
NEW YORK -- When the Bush administration beat back South Korea's bid last month to sharply raise tariffs on foreign cigarettes, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the case had nothing to do with public health. ''It was a straight trade issue,'' he s
With tobacco, however, nothing is that simple. Free trade, as a rule, increases competition, lowers prices and makes better products available to consumers, leading to higher consumption. Usually, that's a good thing. But with cigarettes, the result can be more smoking, disease and death.
Four million people globally will die this year from lung cancer, emphysema and other smoking-related diseases, making cigarettes the largest single cause of preventable death. By 2030, the annual number of fatalities could hit 10 million, according to the World Health Organization.
That has anti-smoking campaigners and even some economists and trade experts arguing that cigarettes aren't normal goods but are, in fact, ''bads'' that need their own set of regulations.
''The benefits of open trade don't apply when you're talking about cigarettes,'' said Ira Shapiro, a Clinton administration trade negotiator who now consults for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. ''They should be treated as an exception to trade rules.''
This view is finding favor with some governments, as well. In the latest talks on a global tobacco-control treaty being backed by the WHO, a range of nations expressed support for provisions to emphasize antismoking measures over free-trade rules. The United States opposed such measures.
In fact, the United States, which at home is suing major tobacco companies for misrepresenting the health risks of cigarettes, has led the charge for freer trade in cigarettes. President Reagan and the first President Bush forced open some markets in Asia to cigarettes from here.
President Clinton opposed discriminatory cigarette excise taxes in seve-ral countries and negotiated a sharp reduction in Chinese tariffs, including those on tobacco, in return for supporting China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
Those moves, combined with freetrade pacts that have lowered tariffs and removed other barriers to trade, have helped boost international sales of cigarettes.
The United States, under Clinton and the new President Bush, has said it challenges only rules imposed to aid local cigarette makers, not nondiscriminatory measures to protect public health. This country opposed South Korea's decision to impose a 40 percent tariff on imported cigarettes because it was ''discriminatory and aimed at protecting their own industry and not at protecting the health and safety of the Korean people,'' said a spokesman for the U.S. trade representative's office.
But anti-smoking activists say that's a false distinction. ''Anything that makes cigarettes more widely available at a lower price is antithetical to public health,'' said Robert Weissman of the corporate-accountability group Essential Action.
Cigarette makers oppose limiting trade in tobacco. ''There is no justification for creating new structures that undermine or contradict the principles'' of international commerce protected by the WTO, said David Betteridge, a spokesman for British American Tobacco PLC of London, parent of Louisville-based Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.
Current trade rules allow countries to take steps to protect the health and safety of their citizens, as long as all goods are treated equally, tobacco companies argue.
Special products need special rules, say tobacco-control activists, pointing to weapons and dangerous chemicals as goods already exempt from regular trade regulations.