PUTRAJAYA, Dec 11 — Anti-tobacco groups today told the Ministry of Industrial Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti) to reveal details on the proposal to exclude tobacco from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), amidst reports that Malaysia has “softened” its stance on the issue.
The NGOs said the news did not bode well for efforts to maintain strict control of tobacco products in the country, as they believe any deal that allows the continued inclusion of the tobacco industry in the controversial free trade agreement would give multi-national corporations the power to dictate their demands on the participating countries.
“The first thing we need to know is what exactly is the language revised during the Singapore talks,” said Dr Molly Cheah, the president of the Malaysian Council for Tobacco Control (MCTC).
“We are happy to note that the Ministry of Health’s position on the carving out of tobacco (from the TPPA) is intact, but we need to know how to proceed from here based on the revised text that was presented in Singapore,” she added at a press conference after chairing a roundtable discussion on tobacco control advocacy in the TPPA.
Last September, International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed confirmed that Malaysia had tabled a proposal to exclude tobacco tariff cuts from the TPPA during the Brunei Darussalam leg of negotiations a month earlier.
The proposal was to allow countries participating in the TPPA to maintain full control over marketing, advertising, banning or taxing tobacco products, while also protecting them from multi-billion dollar lawsuits by tobacco firms.
The minister was reported to have said that Malaysia - which imposes a 52 per cent tax rate on tobacco items - was “firm on the subject”, though he admitted that they have yet to find supporters among the 12 countries involved in the negotiations.
A report yesterday, however, claimed that Malaysia had tabled a “revised proposal” on the carve-out deal at the latest round of negotiations that just ended in Singapore earlier this week, which dropped prohibitions on tariff reductions.
Global trade portal World Trade Online reported that the “new language” of the revised proposal removes the market access element - an apparent nod to demands from the United States to push tariff reductions on tobacco and tobacco products in the contentious agreement.
Dr Cheah today repeated MCTC’s support for Malaysia’s initial proposal, saying that the onus is on Miti to share the details with them so they are able to help the government pursue a total carve-out of the tobacco industry from the TPPA.
Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) president Datuk Dr N.K.S. Tharmaseelan said it was disappointing to learn of the revision to the carve-out proposal, noting that it only shows that Malaysia is caving in to US pressure despite taking such a bold position on the issue.
“We hope on this issue, Miti will take the MOH’s advice on why tobacco should be taken out. Miti should not put money before health,” he said.
Mary Assunta Kolandai, who is senior policy advisor for the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, stressed that Malaysia sees an average of 11,000 people die prematurely every year due to smoking, or at least one death an hour, making tobacco control necessary.
“It is currently the biggest killer in Malaysia, which is why a total carve-out is vital in Malaysia... free trade is meaningless if it is not safe trade,” she said.
US President Barack Obama has hailed the TPP as a centrepiece of renewed American engagement in Asia, saying it contains market-opening commitments that go well beyond those made in other free-trade accords.
But the complexity of the issues has already caused negotiators to miss the original 2012 deadline set by Obama to reach a deal, with the new target also looking unlikely.
The TPPA is a free trade agreement that has been negotiated by the US, Malaysia and nine other nations as part of the larger Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership since 2010.
Critics allege that the agreement has since been co-opted by powerful corporations to allow them to trample over existing consumer, worker and environmental rights in signatory countries.
A recent leaked TPPA document posted by whistleblower Wikileaks appeared to support criticism of the agreement, claiming it could only proceed if Asia-Pacific members of the negotiations are willing to make major sacrifices on national interests.