Dems accuse White House of being soft on tobacco in trade talks

Dozens of House Democrats are accusing the Obama administration of being too soft on tobacco controls in trade negotiations with 11 other countries in the Asia-Pacific.

The lawmakers say that the U.S. Trade Representative’s decision to back down from a provision making it more difficult for tobacco companies to challenge domestic regulations amounts to “a step backward” for the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.

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“These weaker provisions, combined with concessions to lower tariffs on tobacco products, would likely lead to greater consumption of a deadly product, particularly in developing countries,” the 56 lawmakers wrote in a letter to President Obama on Wednesday.

During negotiations in August, the Obama administration backed away from an earlier proposal that included a “safe harbor” to protect individual countries’ anti-smoking efforts in the trade deal, sparking outrage among public health groups. 

Though the administration's new language protects domestic laws that generally protect human health, the lawmakers wrote that it “does not provide the certainty of the prior proposal and its tobacco-specific safe harbor.”

The new measure leaves the door open for tobacco companies to bring legal cases against countries with tough tobacco laws, they say, and weakens countries’ abilities to protect their citizens.

“The United States should be a leader in protecting our children and families from the dangers of tobacco,” Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “We need to hold tobacco companies accountable for attempting to subvert public health policies, and make clear the dangers of tobacco products.”

The lawmakers assert that tobacco companies have already tried to exploit trade negotiations to gain a foothold in new markets. 

"We should not enable tobacco companies to use trade law to subvert public health," Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said. "Our country should be leading with trade policies that promote health, not disease."

The Obama administration wants to wrap up talks on the trade deal by the end of the year.