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Big Tobacco’s use of investor-state rules in ‘trade’ agreements lampooned


Still from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

The HBO program Last Week Tonight averages about 4.1 million viewers around the world. On Sunday, its host John Oliver launched an 18-minute critique on how Big Tobacco uses ‘free trade’ agreements to counter governments acting in the public interest.

At the 6:12 point in the show, Oliver tells us how Philip Morris International took aim at Australia’s law on plain non-branded cigarette packaging. First the company shifted control of its Australian cigarette operations to its Hong Kong-based subsidiary Philip Morris Asia. Then just months later PM Asia sued the Australian government for violating the Australia-Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement, claiming their action had lowered the value of the company’s trademark and intellectual property.

At 9:18, Oliver then highlights how the governments of Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Ukraine – at the behest of Big Tobacco – have threatened to file a complaint against Australia at the World Trade Organization claiming the plain packaging rules would hurt their tobacco exports to Australia. At 10:37, Oliver also notes how Philip Morris International has launched a legal challenge against Uruguay for “damaging its business prospects” by putting health warnings on cigarette packaging.

And at 12:08, he tells us that Philip Morris International has also threatened Togo, one of the world’s poorest countries, with an “incalculable amount of international trade litigation” because the country had introduced warnings on cigarette packaging. Oliver tells us, “Togo, justifiably terrified by threats of billion-dollar settlements, backed down from a public health law that many wanted.”

Oliver’s response to this? He suggests a new image for Philip Morris’ Marlboro brand cigarettes – “Jeff the diseased lung in a cowboy hat.” Among his social media campaign ideas, Oliver suggests that people tweet the #JeffWeCan hashtag to raise its profile. You can find the #JeffWeCan image on Twitter at @LastWeekTonight.

To watch the 18-minute critique of Big Tobacco and ‘free trade’, please click here.

For information and resources from the Council of Canadians campaign against ‘free trade’ deals and the investor-state dispute settlement provisions that allow transnational corporations to sue governments for public interest legislation, including public health measures, please click here.

Further reading
Tobacco lobby claims Canadian law against candy-flavoured cigarettes violates NAFTA and WTO rules (October 2009 blog)