Companies Using Treaties to Subvert Democracy

Australian Cigarette PackagesWith Leonard Nimoy’s dying from COPD, it seems like a good time to finally write an article about cigarette marketing and their more general danger to democracy. But I should be clear: what Nimoy did was good. He quit smoking in his early 50s. It would have been better if he had quit in his early 30s. But it is doubtless that the last three decades of his life were far better because he had quit smoking — and I’m not just talking about health and longevity. Smoking is terrible. Heavy smokers wake up each morning in withdrawal. They don’t feel as good. They are ostracized. They don’t enjoy the tastes of food and spirits as much as they could.

I was reading about a study recently that found that tobacco and heroin were opposites. Heroin had a very high mortality rate in the short term, but basically no direct long term harm once you quit. Smoking cigarettes basically can’t kill you in the short term — even over a few years. But its use can harm you long after you stop. I’m only comparing them because heroin is considered “the hardest drug” and cigarettes are completely legal. Now certainly, heroin is more mythology than anything at this point. But why is it that we won’t let people drink until they are 21 years old, but these cancer time bombs are available at only 18?

Back in 1992, I had a mind blowing experience. I was in Hong Kong riding on one of the ferries that took me from where I was staying in the rich area, where white people went to conferences, to the poorer area where things were interesting. And I saw a poster on the ferry for “the world’s best selling cigarette.” And I had never heard of it.[1] What I took away from that was that while the United States was in the process of quitting this deadly habit, the cigarette companies were busy exporting it everywhere else.

In 1994, Roger Rosenblatt at The New York Times wrote, How Do Tobacco Executives Live With Themselves? Apparently, they live with themselves exactly the same way they do today, because if anything, their behavior is worse now. To answer the question, I suspect they have no trouble living with themselves. Their excessive pay packages and a little “libertarian” theory about “freedom” is all that is required.

John Oliver did an excellent segment on it early this month, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Tobacco. In the past, we had all those tobacco executives lying about the health effects of cigarettes. Now, they are bullying smaller countries to keep people smoking as long as they are breathing. It has a special relevance to me, because I know that I could take on a libertarian persona and write about politics from a conservative but interesting perspective. And in doing so, I’m sure that I could get people to pay me. Yet I don’t do that because I think it is wrong — because it would make the political discourse slightly worse. These are people who think it is just peachy to kill in the name of their quarterly bonuses.

I’ll admit, I’m really behind the curve on this and I shouldn’t be. I had thought that since tobacco had become so much less profitable here in the United States, that Philip Morris and other tobacco companies would just diversify. You know: start making toilet paper and garden supplies. But no. They’ve just grown their markets in other countries where the people are less able to protect them. Also, even in Australia, Philip Morris International is using an obscure part of an old trade agreement to fight an anti-smoking law. This, of course, is a big part of the concern about TPP and TTIP.

This is an outrage regarding cigarettes, but there is just as deadly a larger issue here. Corporations are trying to set up legal frameworks that tie the hands of democratic governance. You think cigarettes shouldn’t be allowed to be marketed to teens? Too bad! We’ve got this treaty that says it doesn’t matter what your democracy wants. This is, interestingly, akin to a very old conservative complaint about the United Nations. But this is an actual threat. My hope is that conservatives and liberals will actually come together on this one. But give Fox News a week of blanket coverage, and I’m not sure many conservatives will care. It will be like “right to work” laws. These will be “right to hire” treaties. But I haven’t given up hope.


[1] This is probably a false memory. As far as I can tell, Marlboro was and still is the best selling. It was very likely Asia’s best selling cigarette. But it doesn’t change the point.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

8 thoughts on “Companies Using Treaties to Subvert Democracy

  1. The anti-UN crowd comes in two flavors, I find. There’s the ones who sincerely believe in a vast global conspiracy to impose “one world” government on us all, spearheaded by the UN, Russians, Jews, Muslims, environmentalists, etc. It has to do with end-times nonsense and the Antichrist. (Why not be in favor of these things? It means the Rapture’s getting nearer, right?)

    Then there are those who find offensive the notion that anyone, anywhere, could ever tell America what to do. Now I disagree with them (I dearly wish sometimes the rest of the world could tell America what to go do with itself) but they have a point, and these horrible trade deals illuminate the point.

    It’s not just tobacco, of course. It’s Big Ag, Big Energy, Big Pharma, a whole odorous potpourri. Let’s say Vermont passed a law banning the sale of products manufactured by workers in unsafe conditions making sub-living wages. Well, Vermont’s law would be tossed out immediately. Countries have had environmental legislation tossed out for the same reasons. It’s an absolute guarantee the new trade rules being sold by Obama have oodles of these things in them. There are conservatives who would be upset by this if they knew about it.

    What propaganda like Fox does so well is to stigmatize any protest by making the resistance to corporate power into the real threat. If you’re against sweatshop labor in Manilla, you’re coming for small-business owners in Maine. If you oppose Monsanto ruining the lives of farmers in India, you’re going to put cameras in every American home and tell them what to eat. It’s easy to stoke fear of open reformers (what might they change next?); harder to convince people that corporate reformers are far scarier exactly because they don’t advertise their intent to change anything.

    And there’s always the guilt-by-association method. Find one reformer who looks or sounds scary, then presto, compared to a corporate PR flack, the reform movement looks crazy. This is so effective. A friend of mine is Croatian-Mexican and understandably fascinated by Balkan history. I recommended a wonderful book on the recent wars, “Safe Area: Gorazde” by Joe Sacco, which humanizes all sides of the conflict. My friend was going to buy it; but he found positive reviews on Amazon written by people he found stupid. Hence, the book must be stupid and anyone who liked it either stupid or easily fooled.

    This technique is used by right-wingers constantly, and it can never be turned around. When the right-wing uses guilt by association against us, they’re exposing our secret agenda. If we use it against them (identifying a candidate’s Koch connections, say), we’re playing the class card or race card or fear-mongering or whatever.

    It’s so brilliant, because our agenda isn’t secret at all. We shout about it all the time. Theirs isn’t exactly a secret, just something it’s not polite to bring up. Strom Thurmond was protecting America by claiming the civil-rights movement was about black men coming for our pure white women; it would be rude to mention Thurmond’s black mistress. On and on it goes . . .

  2. I think there is a lot of overlap in those two kinds of anti-UN types. Ultimately, it is this incredibly parochial idea that “our way” is the best way regardless of what the facts say. And it is annoying, because this is the reason that the UK has universal healthcare — which we paid to get started — and we don’t. And that pisses me off!

    The problem with the treaties is that the core of both the Democratic and Republican parties are the same: this kind of “Free trade will save us all!” nonsense. The vast majority of the people — on the left and the right — are totally against it. But those on the right generally don’t understand how they are being manipulated (or they just think the most important thing is making 13-year-old rape victims carry her fetus to term). And those on the left have been trained to settle for “not as bad as.”

    The one thing that most defines conservatives is their long list of things that can’t be done. So we can never just fix a problem. If we see a problem, we must go through all possible solutions and filter out all the ones that are ideologically unacceptable. And given that pretty much anything but tax and regulation cuts are forbidden, there is never anything we can do. Except, of course, cut taxes and reduce regulation. “If only we allowed lead in the water, our economy would be booming!”

    • “If we only allowed lead in the water!” It does make the economy boom, though, to be perfectly honest. For about eight seconds, until the cost comes due. I’ve given up on being angered by places like North Dakota that think assuming the position for resource extractors will cure all their ills forever; now, it just makes me terribly sad to watch. CNN Money had a video on oil busts Juan Cole used on his site (CNN Money doesn’t make it easy to find, now):

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r34Ul94kY6E&feature=youtu.be

      • Well, to be more accurate, I’m interested in employment and median pay, not economic growth. As I will discuss at 8:05 tomorrow morning, economic growth and wages no longer have any relationship. But note that in a bad economy, the government passing laws requiring environmental improvements (like lead removal) actually create jobs because it forces the owner class to share some of its wealth with the working class. And you get a better world. The conservatives have it exactly wrong. They always say we can’t do what’s right for the environment when the economy is bad because it will cost jobs (like they care about jobs). But they just say that because they never think it is okay to ask anything of the rich.

        • Right, exactly right. If you require coal companies to put filters on their smokestacks you create jobs for small businesses manufacturing those filters. And right-wingers hate small businesses — they want the most power going to the most powerful. Coal companies could easily make their own filters, but the profit margin is smaller than digging free stuff from the ground and setting it on fire, so small businesses are the ones making filters, and who cares about them? As Dr. Noam has observed, when right-wingers say “jobs” they mean “profits.”

          • There is also this weird belief among conservatives that environmental improvements don’t improve the quality of life. Of course, after the changes are made, they are pleased. But before the clean-up, they think it is a step backwards.

  3. Why Philip Morris and other tobacco companies are not 100% behind the recent marijuana legalization movement is beyond me.

    • Because they don’t already own a large share of the market. The one thing that corporations hate is actual competition and a level playing field.

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