America's 'height of hypocrisy' on tobacco
A product so lethal doesn't deserve free-trade benefits.
Global citizen, that retroism from sunnier days is back. Calls for the US to be a better model for the rest of the world peppered the presidential campaign. Reforming global tobacco policy will be a critical first step in walking the global citizen talk.Skip to next paragraph
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The World Health Organization predicts that a billion people will die from smoking before 2100, 10 times the number during the 20th century. And 80 percent of smokers live in the developing world. That dark forecast reflects globalizing trade, Big Tobacco's marketing muscle, and US official help opening foreign cigarette markets, as Allan Brandt writes in "The Cigarette Century."
For years, health authorities in weakly regulated developing countries tried to get better control over tobacco use by restricting access to their markets. They worried that if Big Tobacco's marketing and pricing power made cigarettes cheaper, more people would smoke. They tried to shield themselves behind tariffs or import bans, often making Faustian deals with domestic growers.
Working with the tobacco lobby, Washington beat back those barriers. The key victory was a 1991 Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade ruling against Thailand that enshrined tobacco as an ordinary product, like, say, a cookie, subject to ordinary trade rules. Although new cigarette markets were slowly opening, the decision was a universal entry ticket.
By 1994, tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds claimed access to 90 percent of the world's markets, compared with only 40 percent a decade earlier. And 100,000 people – mostly kids – become smokers daily. For millions, "better global citizenship" could mean the difference between life or death.
Part of being a good citizen is telling the truth. So our first step is to expose the fiction that tobacco is an ordinary product. In fact, tobacco is the only consumer "good" that, used properly, produces death in 50 percent of habitual users, a characteristic that seems not so much ordinary as uniquely lethal.
The notion that "ordinary trade rules" are appropriate is equally perverse. Because there is no safe way to use it, tobacco trade produces social costs, not benefits. Because tax revenues and profits are dwarfed by massive public costs, tobacco trade produces net economic losses not gains. Trade in tobacco makes more people worse off.