iStock photo

iStock photo

The sweeping trade deal concluded Monday by negotiators from the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim countries still faces strong criticism from environmentalists, labor unions and many lawmakers– which makes its approval by Congress uncertain.

But public health groups are rejoicing over a provision barring the tobacco industry from using the treaty, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to stop member countries from enforcing tough anti-smoking measures.

Anti-smoking groups around the world had long sought such language in recognition, they said, of the unique dangers of tobacco use, which annually causes millions of premature deaths worldwide.

“We commend the United States and other countries that stood up to the tobacco industry and put public health first,” said a statement by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and American Lung Association.

The U.S. Trade Representative announced in 2012 that it would propose language giving member countries a ‘’safe harbor’’ to enact strong tobacco policies without fear of litigation by tobacco companies for unfair trade practices.

But as reported by FairWarning (here and here), the Obama administration the following year appeared to abandon the effort amid a storm of protest from powerful business groups—including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Association of Manufacturers. They claimed that singling out tobacco for special treatment was a slippery slope that could lead to restrictions on other products vital to U.S. trade.

But in a final round of talks last week in Atlanta, negotiators from the 12 nations, including Japan, Canada, Mexico and Australia, approved language to stop the tobacco industry from charging foreign governments with treaty violations if they adopt tough restrictions on the marketing of tobacco products.

Other industries, even without the involvement or approval of their home countries, still would have the right to sue foreign governments with the aim of forcing them to repeal regulations or pay compensation for business losses. Known as “investor-state dispute settlement” provisions, they have become standard features in trade agreements. Critics say they give multinational corporations—and not just tobacco companies—too much power.

Philip Morris International, the world’s largest private tobacco company, has used the investor-state mechanism to drag Australia and Uruguay before arbitration panels. The company has claimed that Australia’s law requiring plain packaging of cigarettes and Uruguay’s requirement of graphic warning labels covering most of the cigarette pack violate intellectual property rights guaranteed under trade agreements. And tobacco companies have threatened trade actions against other countries that have adopted or are considering similar measures to reduce smoking.

Approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which links countries that account for 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, has long been a top priority for President Obama, who hailed the agreement in a statement Monday.

“The partnership levels the playing field for our farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers by eliminating more than 18,000 taxes that various countries put on our products,’’ he said. “It includes the strongest commitments on labor and the environment of any trade agreement in history, and those commitments are enforceable, unlike in past agreements.’’

However, prospects for ratification by Congress are uncertain. The strongest objections have come from some Democrats, who say that past trade agreements have sacrificed American jobs.