WTF WTO: The Silent Victims of Trade

Unbeknownst to many, the World Trade Organization has increasingly attacked U.S. consumer and environmental policies. In the past month, the WTO has ruled that both dolphin-safe tuna labels and the U.S. Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act are in fact in violation of the organization’s rules.

If the U.S. refuses to abandon or revise these policies, it could face trade sanctions from the WTO.

For those of you that may be unfamiliar with dolphin-safe tuna labels, these are found on tuna products that were caught through fishing methods known to reduce dolphin bycatch. The dolphin-safe tuna labeling campaign has been largely successful in the U.S., with consumers preferring tuna caught using these methods. However, the WTO has declared the labels violate the WTO’s Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, calling it an “unnecessary obstacle to international trade”.  Spearheading this movement was Mexico, who believed the policy created an unfair advantage for those who receive a dolphin-safe label. Mexico has failed to meet the standards to receive the label, as their tuna corporations often use unsatisfactory fishing methods, and has sought to relax the dolphin-safe tuna standards in the past.

The U.S. Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was also found to be in violation of the same agreement as dolphin-safe tuna. In an effort to reduce teenage smoking, the FSPTCA banned candy and clove cigarettes in 2009. Extensive research has shown that teenagers more commonly use those types of cigarettes, and are often marketed as “starter cigarettes”. Pushing this particular agenda was Indonesia, where clove cigarettes are a substantial export.

These are two blaring examples of the WTO placing corporate interests ahead of the public interest. Are corporate profits more important than the positive effects derived from these consumer and environmental policies? Apparently to the WTO, profits are more significant than saving dolphins and preventing teenagers from developing an unhealthy addiction.

By viewing these progressive policies (which have been popular with the public) as “barriers to trade” is the WTO’s first mistake. While reducing barriers to trade can achieve economic growth, mislabeling these policies “barriers” will cost society more than it could hope to gain.

In the tobacco case, the public health will ultimately suffer the greatest loss, and could place an additional monetary strain on the health care system. Consumers (and of course dolphins) lose with the elimination of dolphin-safe tuna labels, as consumer preferences have shown that it is clearly an important issue to many.

Neither of these policies is considered to be particularly stringent market regulations. Both are fairly soft regulatory approaches, which have typically been safe from WTO attacks. Neither policy seeks to discriminate against foreign trade nor does it seek to promote domestic producers. Therefore neither should even be open to attack from a trade organization, as they are domestic policies. Instead, the WTO has chosen to assert its influence into American policy decisions, while placing corporate profits ahead of the interests of the people.

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