The Current

Why Big Tobacco is threatening lawsuits against governments in the developing world

Some tobacco companies now threaten to sue countries hoping to pass anti-smoking legislation because they claim it violates international treaties by impeding trade.
In some developing countries, efforts to discourage smokers is running up against new opposition from tobacco companies. They threaten to sue and they're waving international trade treaties. (Reuters/Sigit Pamungkas)

We know now tobacco causes cancers, lung disease, rising health care costs, premature death. Anti-smoking measures--like warnings on packages and higher taxes--have convinced many Canadian smokers to quit. But now Tobacco companies are challenging developing countries who are trying to do much the taking those countries to court.

The frigid temperatures of the last few days have likely had many of Canada's smokers taking another hard look at their habit. They may join the many other former smokers who've decided to butt out altogether. That's been the trend among developed nations.

But in many countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America smoking rates still soar ... and so do the public health problems that go with them. But as governments attempt to pass anti-smoking measures, they're running into a roadblock.

Increasingly, multinational tobacco companies are intervening. They argue that gruesome warnings on cigarette packages and other new anti-smoking measures violate international trade treaties.

Uruguay is widely regarded as a tobacco-control success story; but now that's under threat since the tobacco giant Philip Morris International announced plans to sue.

  • Dr. Eduardo Bianco heads the country's Tobacco Control Commission of Uruguay's national medical association in Montevideo, Uruguay.

A World Bank arbitration tribunal has agreed to hear Philip Morris International's case, and decide whether Uruguay is in violation of an investment treaty with the tobacco company's home country of Switzerland.

We requested an interview or statement from Philip Morris International, but received no reply. There is a statement about Uruguay on the company website.

The ongoing Uruguay case may be the most prominent example of this type of legal strategy, but it's far from the only one. British American Tobacco sent this letter to the Ministry of Health and Social Services in Namibia.

In Gabon, Togo and Uganda, tobacco companies argue anti-smoking laws violate the trade treaties those countries agreed to sign. Protracted, and expensive, trade tribunal hearings could be in store if the countries implement their anti-smoking policies.

  • Thomas Bollyky is a trade lawyer and the Senior Fellow for Global Health, Economics, and Development at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was in our Washington studio.
  • Dr. Prabhat Jha is a leading expert in the field of tobacco control, and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto. He's recently published a review article in the New England Journal of Medicine examining global smoking rates, and offering suggestions for how to reduce them. Dr. Prabhat Jha was in our Toronto studio.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Peter Mitton and Sarah Grant.


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