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Anti-smoking groups come to Obama’s aid on trade agreement

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Public health groups are pressing Democrats to back a controversial Pacific Rim trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other groups are backing the deal because of language that blocks tobacco companies from using the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s dispute settlement system.

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Being carved out of that system means tobacco companies can’t sue when foreign governments restrict labels on cigarette packaging.

Inclusion of the carve-out in the TPP was a big win for anti-smoking groups, but it is costing President Obama some valuable Republican votes in Congress as he seeks to win approval of the deal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellTrump 'absolutely' qualified to be president, GOP rep says This week: Zika, Puerto Rico fights loom ahead of recess Trump flexes new digital muscle MORE (R-Ky.) warned the administration not to include the provision, and several Republicans from Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia — all tobacco-producing states — say they will oppose the TPP because of the language.

That’s a big problem for Obama, who would need Democrats to make up for the lost GOP votes. Much of the Democratic Party, under pressure from labor unions and other groups on the left, opposes the TPP.

Enter the anti-smoking groups, who are arguing they can deliver some new Democratic support for the TPP.

While they won’t name any names and can’t point to any lawmaker statements of support, they say that Democrats have told them in conversations on Capitol Hill that the tobacco provision will be a very important consideration in their vote.

“Most Democrats are still making up their minds as they weigh the actual impact on their constituents,” Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in an interview.

“But there will be more support for the Pacific deal than people expect,” he said.

Gregg Haifley, the federal relations director with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said the tobacco provision goes right to the heart of what Democrats have demanded in trade agreements: reducing global tobacco use while protecting the sovereignty of governments from expensive and unwarranted litigation.

He and Myers suggested some New Democrats who didn’t back Obama on fast-track trade authority last year could be won over by the tobacco language.

Haifley said these Democrats will realize the language is the only way to guarantee that governments can protect their ability to implement public health regulations without the worry of tobacco-related legal challenges. 

The White House has sought to use the tobacco language as a way of arguing the TPP’s investor-state process is a fair one that will not allow foreign companies to undermine U.S. laws.

The measure would give countries the power to deny tobacco-related cases under the investor-state dispute settlement process when public health regulations are challenged. 

White House spokesman Josh Earnest in October said that the ability of “individual countries to put in place policies that prioritize the public health of their citizens I think is a common-sense step, and that’s what we fought to include in this agreement.”

Still, opponents of the TPP say the investor-state process would still cause harm to U.S. workers. Dispute settlement rules allow private companies to sue governments if they think their legal protections are not being met under a trade agreement.

Progressives such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWeek ahead: Reg advocates hitting back at GOP agenda RNC strategizes against Clinton VP contenders Trump blows response to Brexit vote MORE, who publicly sparred with Obama last year over those investor rules, are among a group of Democrats who had called on U.S. trade negotiators to scrap the process. 

The public health groups actually wanted the TPP deal to go much further and fully exempt tobacco from the deal, removing the crop from any tariff reductions under the agreement. 

Tobacco growers argue the exception is written too broadly and would give the 11 other nations in the deal an unchecked avenue to stop the import of their tobacco products.

McConnell has said that the deal may not get a vote until the lame-duck session after the November elections. 

North Carolina Republican Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard BurrRichard BurrGun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA GOP senator on ISIS: 'Take the fight to them' GOP senators: Brexit vote a wake-up call MORE have said that they will actively oppose the TPP because of the tobacco language. 

But even amid Republican dissent on the provision, Myers said there is “no bending even if the U.S. wanted to change it, they don’t have the power to do it.”

“It is supported by a very large number of countries.”