EDITORIAL: Bending to Big Tobacco

The Fresno BeeAugust 23, 2013 

A man smokes a cigarette in a restaurant in Yangon, Myanmar. As some of the world’s biggest companies trumpet their arrival in Asia's hottest frontier market, the tobacco industry has a different strategy: It's slipping into Myanmar without fanfare.


Smoking rates are below 13% in California. Tobacco use is sinking across the country and in other wealthy countries. What's a multinational tobacco company to do?

With profits to make and shareholders to please, the tobacco industry peddles its product in poorer nations and lately is seeking to use international treaties and U.S. trade policy to keep from losing more market share.

Rather than stand up to Big Tobacco, President Barack Obama's Office of the U.S. Trade Representative last week sidestepped the issue by not explicitly recognizing tobacco as uniquely harmful to human health, says FairWarning, a nonprofit investigative online publication that reports about tobacco issues.

The trade representative initially proposed what every health-conscious Californian knows: Tobacco is bad for you, and sovereign nations should be free to regulate it as they see fit. That language was watered down, in the face of lobbying by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and tobacco state congressional members.

As developed nations try to restrict tobacco use, the tobacco industry invokes trade policy in creative and nefarious ways, claiming, for example, that Australia violated its intellectual property rights by restricting logos from cigarette packaging and requiring graphic warning labels that picture cancer victims.

Rather than challenge Australia's regulations in Australian courts, major tobacco companies have encouraged Ukraine, Honduras and Dominican Republic to challenge Australia's regulations before the World Trade Organization, FairWarning reported in November.

In a stark illustration of the tobacco industry's strategy, The Associated Press reported that the world's major tobacco companies are moving factories into Myanmar, an impoverished nation of 60 million people where 45% of adult men smoke and where children as young as 12 regularly buy cigarettes.

The article pointed out that "awareness about the health hazards is low, tobacco controls are weakly enforced, and the anti-smoking lobby is effectively a one-man act." Myanmar will be a rich vein for tobacco companies as it emerges from years of military dictatorship.

Anti-smoking organizations called the Obama administration's watered-down stance in trade talks a missed opportunity.

They're correct. The ability of nations to control and restrict tobacco will become increasingly relevant as the tobacco industry uses every tool at its disposal to stave off regulation.


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