The global community recently marked World No Tobacco Day, coming together to call attention to the tobacco epidemic and encourage tobacco-users to end their dependence. As a former smoker, I know firsthand the battle to quit is tough, and my cigarette addiction took a toll on my health. I’m not alone. Tobacco is the number one cause of preventable deaths worldwide, killing nearly 6 million people each year. Over 3,200 young Americans try their first cigarette every day, and an additional 2,100 ramp up usage, going from occasional smokers to daily smokers. At this rate, 5.6 million American children alive today will die prematurely as a result of smoking.  

This undeniable tragedy isn’t just an American problem. It’s a worldwide pandemic, and it’s why the World Health Organization launched its “Get Ready for Plain Packaging” campaign for more effective health warnings on tobacco products around the globe. Warning labels have been proven to successfully reduce smoking rates, and plain packaging is the next step for a modern, comprehensive anti-tobacco program. But global adoption of plain packaging legislation faces steep challenges from the tobacco industry, from lobbying on the front end to litigation on the back end. Because tobacco is one of few products that kills when used as directed, it is important for the world to stand together and provide all tools necessary for countries to protect their citizens’ health. President Obama’s new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), does just that.

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Plain packaging requires tobacco products be sold without marketing gimmicks and with clearly displayed health warnings. In 2012, Australia was the first country to fully implement plain packaging requirements, leading the way for other countries like France, Ireland, and the U.K. to adopt their own initiatives. Studies of the new rules confirm plain packaging improves public awareness of tobacco’s harmful effects, increases smokers’ appreciation of risks to their own health, and provides a unique opportunity to reach those most at risk of tobacco dependency. It’s an effective, common sense approach to ending one of the greatest public health crises of our time, which is exactly why Big Tobacco is determined to delay adoption of plain packaging -- but TPP takes decisive action to counter those abusive tactics.

TPP makes a major policy statement: it’s the first trade agreement to specifically exempt tobacco control measures, including rules on distribution, labeling, packaging, advertising, marketing, and sale of tobacco products, from challenges under investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). While TPP already provides strong and broad protection for countries to regulate for public welfare, tobacco’s uniquely lethal effects and the tobacco industry’s history of exploiting ISDS to delay regulation have earned the additional protection in TPP that explicitly recognizes tobacco control measures for the public welfare.

New plain packaging rules aren’t just theoretical; they’re already happening. Last week, New Zealand and Canada announced plans to roll out plain packaging by 2017. Initially delayed due to wariness of potential litigation from tobacco companies, TPP’s explicit protection for tobacco control measures gives confidence to both countries to move forward. Singapore, another TPP partner, also has plain packaging legislation in the works.

The American Cancer Society, along with over 30 other leading health organizations, recently stated in a letter to Congress, “TPP rightly acknowledges the unique harms tobacco products cause” and is a “historic and meaningful step forward for global trade and investment agreements that will help protect public health and reduce the death and disease caused by tobacco products.” We know what works. The question is, do we have the courage to do something about it? Half a century ago, the Surgeon General’s 1964 report and warning label on tobacco cut U.S. adult smoking rates by more than half. Plain packaging has the potential to do the same today and substantially reduce tobacco use. Let’s continue to listen to the public health experts, like the Surgeon General and American Cancer Society. Congress should support TPP and protect global public health measures that will save lives from the tobacco epidemic.


Fowler, former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee