The Press have treated the government’s failure to adopt plain cigarette packaging, as in, for example, Australia, as a national issue – but with the focus on how far political advisor Lynton Crosby influenced Cameron’s decision. The much broader international trade context and the implications for future legislation remain hidden.
And yet a hidden trade agenda is central to the failure. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is backing multinational corporations which use free trade agreements to circumvent national legislation. Included in this free trade agenda are “investor protection” commitments designed to allow corporations to sue sovereign states directly.
Tobacco companies have a record of using international agreements to further their interests. In November 2011 British American Tobacco and Japanese Tobacco, supported by Philip Morris and various other tobacco corporations, tried to use intellectual property agreements to stop the Australian government introducing plain cigarette packaging. The case failed when the Australian High Court judged in favour of the Australian government.
Now the companies are back on the legal route, this time using WTO regulations. But since only states can take a dispute to the WTO, Australia’s plain packaging has been challenged by a country which conveniently has Philip Morris subsidiaries (though almost no trade with Australia) – Ukraine. Australia has rejected the complaint once but will be forced to respond when Ukraine comes back a second time.
When the British government pulled back on plain packaging legislation, it was said to be waiting to “see what happens” with Australia. In fact, the discussion has been surprisingly drawn out, as anti-tobacco health groups have not let go. Still, conveniently for government, the discussion has been limited to the national level.
A trade issue
But this is definitively an international trade issue. The British government is utterly committed to so-called “free trade” on behalf of the City’s transnational financial services. So is the EU. Neither wants anything that is counter to “free trade”, especially when opposition to “free trade” would effectively be supporting Australia in this dispute.
And the corporations are planning to sidetrack even the WTO. One key weapon in their fight is a mechanism in free trade deals called Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). These mechanisms allow “investors” (ie, corporations) to sue states directly for loss of all anticipated profits, and to do so in jurisdictions of their own choosing. So a tobacco company could go to Ukraine to sue Britain, for example. This means that once a free trade deal with ISDS has been signed, it stops states from exercising control over how it is implemented and prevents any backtracking.
The EU, on our behalf and behind closed doors, is incorporating ISDS in all its trade deals, including the big US/EU deal. This will make Britain far more vulnerable than Australia has been, because deposed Australian PM Julia Gillard refused to include ISDS in her country’s trade deals.
Lynton Crosby’s lobbying firm has a contract with Philip Morris International, though he is not saying how much for. But this is a bigger issue than simple lobbying. It is a question of whether we let our government and the EU hand over our health policy – or any other policy – to transnational corporations working with dodgy foreign jurisdictions. And it exposes the lie of “free trade”. ■