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Public Health Takes a Hit Even as Uruguay Prevails in Infamous Philip Morris Investor-State Attack

Thankfully, a years-long campaign to shame Philip Morris and the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) system for the tobacco giant’s infamous ISDS attack on Uruguay ultimately prevailed, but not without leaving deep and damaging scars to global tobacco-control efforts. An ISDS tribunal ruled that Uruguay did not have to compensate Philip Morris after the firm attacked Uruguay’s public health law requiring that 80 percent of tobacco product packages feature graphic medical warning labels.  

But what happens when a government “wins” an ISDS attack should be a cautionary tale for the threats posed by the Trans-Pacific Partnerships (TPP). If enacted, the TPP would double U.S. ISDS liability overnight.

Uruguay only managed to dodge this bullet because billionaire Michael Bloomberg stepped in to cover its millions of dollars in costly legal defense during six years of litigation. When Philip Morris initiated the ISDS case in 2010, the Uruguayan government reportedly was prepared to immediately cave and change their anti-tobacco law, since defending the case was financially impossible for the tiny country. 

Late last year, another ISDS tribunal ruled that it did not have jurisdiction in the Philip Morris case against Australia for similar tobacco-control policies, but Australians saw more than $50 million of their tax dollars go to legal costs to defend against the attack, according to World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan. This includes having to pay the three corporate lawyers who served as “judges” during the four-year ordeal. They bill at least $375 per hour and, in a manner that would be unethical for real judges, often rotate between suing governments for corporations and “judging” cases.

And, just by launching these cases, Philip Morris managed to chill other nations from enacting similar legislation for years to avoid being the next target. One example: New Zealand held off on its own plain packaging proposal to see what happened with Australia. Canada’s efforts to enact plain-packaging legislation died after R.J. Reynolds sent a memorandum to the House of Commons arguing the policy would constitute an illegal expropriation under the North American Free Trade Agreement’s ISDS regime, exposing Canada to millions in liability.  

With six million people dying from tobacco-related deaths each year globally, it is not hyperbole to say that the years of litigation of these ISDS cases contributed to needless loss of life.

The Obama administration touts that the TPP will exclude tobacco companies from using ISDS to challenge public health policies. But as Senator Elizabeth Warren put it, the ISDS tobacco exclusion is “pretty much an admission that ISDS can be used to weaken other public health laws.”

And, the favorable ruling in the Uruguay case unfortunately does not assure governments of their policy space. Among the fatal flaws baked into the very structure of the ISDS system is how capricious and subjective ISDS tribunals are. When a particularly egregious case gets massive negative attention and becomes highly politicized, it is in the interest of the tribunal to “make it go away” in order to preserve the ISDS system as a whole. 

When Canadian companies Methanex and Glamis Gold launched some of the few ISDS cases against the United States — against California regulations of toxic substances and mining respectively — the public outrage by members of Congress and others likely affected the outcomes, and the United States dodged the ISDS bullet. Other, less high-profile cases with very similar fact patterns and based on the same claims ended with the taxpayers of other countries having to pay multi-million dollar awards to corporations. 

For now, we breathe a sigh of relief that these cases against Uruguay and Australia did not result in millions in taxpayer compensation to the tobacco giant and congratulate all the public health advocates that helped to spotlight the travesty of Philip Morris’ ISDS attack against the countries. 

But, at the same time, we must redouble our efforts to stop the TPP, which would dramatically expand this dangerous and capricious ISDS regime.

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If tobacco labels present a warning, it is a good excuse not to apply punishment.

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