MARCH 1998 · VOLUME 19· NUMBER 3
Domesticating Big Tobacco
That was Representative Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, at a February news conference announcing a legislative package to curb U.S. tobacco companies' international operations.
Although the package is, in many ways, extremely modest, if passed in its entirety it would constitute one of the most far-reaching legislative efforts ever undertaken to curb U.S. multinationals' activities overseas.
One of its innovative provisions would require U.S. tobacco companies to adhere at least to the same marketing and labeling standards abroad as at home -- a standard of consistency that is applied to bribery outside of U.S. borders, but to almost no other type of corporate conduct.
THE INTERNATIONAL DIMENSION
In exchange for annual payments rising to an undiscounted $15 billion a year and adoption of a variety of tobacco control measures, the June settlement proposal between the attorneys general from 40 U.S. states and the tobacco industry would give the industry virtual immunity from all future lawsuits [see "The Great Tobacco Bailout," Multinational Monitor, July/August 1997]. Because of the breadth of the state attorneys general deal, it would require national legislation to go into effect.
The deal would permit the tobacco industry to continue unimpeded in its international expansion. The deal completely excludes any measures to curb the overseas activities of U.S. tobacco multinationals.
This exclusion was not an oversight. The Tobacco Titans jealously guarded their prerogatives to poison the rest of the world in their negotiations with the state AGs. Industry negotiators led by Martin Broughton, the chair of BAT, parent company of Brown & Williamson and the second largest cigarette manufacturer in the world, simply refused to permit any mention of international issues in the settlement. In the face of the industry's hardline, the AGs quickly capitulated.
Increasingly, however, it looks like the U.S. Congress will reject the terms of the June deal -- both the domestic immunity provisions and the exclusion of international controls.
"Comprehensive tobacco control legislation would be incomplete without strong international tobacco controls," said Senator Paul Wellstone, D-Minnesota, at the February news conference. "Unless we include strong international controls as part of tobacco control legislation, this outlaw industry will continue to exploit the overseas market, preying disproportionately on people in developing countries."
"Tobacco control legislation must protect children and protect public health at home and abroad while conceding no special protections to the tobacco industry," Wellstone added.
Along with Doggett and Wellstone, Senators Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Representative Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, announced the five-pronged international tobacco control initiative.
CURBING THE TOBACCO PREDATORS
The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts 10 million people will die annually from tobacco-related disease by the 2020s -- up from a current 3 million annual death toll -- with 70 percent of the deaths taking place in the Third World.
"Tobacco use in developing countries threatens to turn back the clock on public health advances in those nations," said Durbin.
That sentiment, plus an appreciation of the unseamliness of passing domestic tobacco control legislation while permitting the tobacco industry to kill unabated outside of U.S. borders, spurred the members of Congress to develop the international tobacco control package.
International smoking rates will surely continue to soar even if the package is adopted, but it should help curtail the ability of U.S. companies to hook smokers outside of the United States. Key provisions would:
Some tobacco activists believe the marketing and labeling standards represent a misguided approach, and that efforts should be focused on promoting adoption of a WHO International Framework Convention on Tobacco. But while a Framework Convention would set out a model for how countries should regulate tobacco, countries would be free to disregard it. Among those countries that introduce strong tobacco control legislation, experience shows that many underfunded government agencies will not be able to enforce it in the face of Big Tobacco's political power and evasive tactics. And, in any case, holding the U.S. companies to a minimum standard of conduct worldwide should convert them into advocates of similar standards to be applied to tobacco companies based in other nations.
Whatever the limitations of the proposed international tobacco control legislative package, however, in the current U.S. political context, it represents a bold tobacco control and corporate accountability initiative.
Of course, bold corporate accountability initiatives have not fared well in the U.S. Congress in recent years, a problem which poses a challenge to supporters of the international proposals.
Backers of the international tobacco legislation are not introducing the package as a stand-alone bill. Rather, they are working to see as much of the package as possible included in the many tobacco bills now under consideration in Congress. Most of the proposals have already been included in leading Democratic bills introduced by Senator Kent Conrad in the Senate and Representative Vic Fazio in the House of Representatives, and at least some provisions are likely to find their way into Republican bills, though they are not there yet.
The public health community is bitterly split over tobacco legislation -- with the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and some other groups willing to accept partial immunity for the industry, and the American Lung Association, the American Public Health Association, Public Citizen and virtually every U.S. grassroots anti-tobacco group opposed to any form of immunity -- but united in its support for international tobacco legislation.
This unanimity -- despite the fact that international issues are
not a priority for most of the public health groups -- combined with the
staggering WHO estimates has generated some momentum for the international
proposals. If any tobacco legislation is passed this year -- a proposition
that is more probable than not -- at least some portion of the international
package will likely be included.