How Trade Pacts Threaten Public Health and Freedom

Far reaching trade pacts make a mockery of the democratic process.

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The container ship Ville D'Aquarius docked at Port Newark Container Terminal (PNCT) located in Port Newark, N.J., as seen from the Ahern Veterans Stadium off of 26th Street in Bayonne on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. The U.S. Coast Guard suspects there may be stowaways in one of the containers on the ship.

David Brodwin is a cofounder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. Follow him on Twitter at @davidbrodwin.

Let's face it: trade agreements bore most people. 

But modern trade pacts reach deep into our lives in ways that have nothing to do with trade.  Deals now under discussion undermine the freedom of people everywhere to decide how to live, and they restrict the ability of democratically-elected governments to promote public health.  It's time for the rest of us to pay attention:  A recent trade spat between Cuba and Australia shows exactly what's at stake.

Last week, the socialist government of Cuba filed an action at the World Trade Organization to confront Australia's public health policy, according to a generally-ignored article in the New York Times.  Cuba cares greatly about tobacco; it is one of Cuba's leading export products and is an important source of hard currency.  Australia on the other hand cares greatly about the health of its citizens.  Australia  has enacted some of the strictest restrictions in the world on the design of cigarette package, banning logos, colors and promotional text.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

(Source: WikiMedia Commons)

Australia's campaign against smoking aims to cut smoking rates to 10 percent by 2018, roughly half recent U.S. smoking rates. Reducing smoking helps people lives longer and reduces the costs of Australia's health care system, which like ours, is a mix of public and private options. By cutting health care costs, Australia's anti-smoking program helps taxpayers, too.

Unfortunately, what's good for Australia is, in this case, bad for Cuba.  Cuba wants to dismantle Australia's anti-smoking policy. Cuba claims that Australia's tobacco labeling law is a "technical barrier" to trade, and as such it breaks the rules of the World Trade Organization. If Australia and Cuba don't reach agreement on their own, the case goes before the WTO's "Dispute Settling Body" which will hear evidence and reach a judgment. If the WTO rules in Cuba's favor, Australia will have to dismantle its anti-smoking program or face retaliatory tariffs or fines.

[See a collection of political cartoons on health care.]

Cases like this one show the long reach of trade pacts into every facet of our lives. Although this is the latest case like this, it is far from the only one. In 2008, at the height of the Mad Cow scare, for example, Canada successfully used trade agreements to prevent the U.S. beef industry from labeling packaged beef with the country of origin.

These are matters of public health and public safety, not matters of taxes and tariffs. If the people of one country want to set higher standards that promote health and prevent disease and accidents, the countries and corporations that profit from lax standards should not be allowed to say "No!"  Let's respect the democratic process and let the people of each nation set the rules and standards they want.  Some countries will set different standards than others depending on their values, traditions and level of economic development.

If we fail to draw a line here, then where will we draw it? Must the U.S. allow the importation of pharmaceuticals that don't meet Food and Drug Administration requirements for safety and efficacy? Must the U.S. allow the importation of cars that lack air-bags and catalytic converters? Must the U.S. allow the importation of food products grown with toxic pesticides that are banned here? 

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These threats are not hypothetical; initiatives like the "Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership" and the "Trans-Pacific Partnership" include new provisions that threaten public safety and the democratic process.

Free trade, done responsibly and with restraint, helps economic growth, development, and employment. But trade pacts that overreach into non-trade issues threaten our safety and freedom.   These threats will confront and overwhelm us in the very near future, if we allow the precedent that any public safety measure can be overturned as a so-called "technical barrier" to trade.

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