TPPA rules may block alcohol control measures

More than ten chapters in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) can have an adverse effect on various aspects of health including tobacco control, medicine prices and banning of chemicals that are dangerous to health.  One of it is alcohol control.

The TPPA which is at the end point of the negotiations may restrict Malaysia’s ability to maintain its current alcohol control policies or introduce additional ones in future. Hence, it is important for Malaysia to insist on a total carve out for alcohol control measures from the whole TPPA as it has proposed for tobacco control measures.

A World Health Organization (WHO) report states that the harmful use of alcohol results in 2.5 million deaths each year. Furthermore, 320 000 young people between the age of 15 and 29 die from alcohol-related causes, resulting in 9% of all deaths in that age group.

In addition to exacerbating poverty, drunk-driving and domestic violence, alcohol abuse has been linked to negative effects on the basic social fabric of society, namely, discord in the home, abused and deprived children, and non-working or chronically ill husbands who become social and economic burdens to both the family and society.

Given the existing problems related to alcohol abuse in Malaysia, it is vital that complete policy space is preserved for our existing and future alcohol control policies.  Since the text of the TPPA has not been made public, we cannot fully evaluate the implications of various TPPA chapters on Malaysia’s ability to implement the alcohol control policies it needs now and in the future.

However the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) chapter of the agreement potentially presents some obstacles. Apparently there is an annex on wines and spirits in the TBT, and we are concerned that wine exporting countries in the TPP will try to increase their wine exports, for example by preventing or restricting effective alcohol health warnings on labels.

Evidence indicates that for health warnings to be effective, labels should be large, on the front of the container, with pictures, rotating health messages, etc.  The experience of Australia and other countries show that when left to the industry to voluntarily implement health warning labels, very few do or they make them ‘text only’ and/or difficult to read and they place them in obscure locations.

Even if the TPPA allows importers to implement health warning labels by placing them on a ‘supplementary’ label, this is likely to be inadequate as these could be small and in obscure locations.

A number of countries are introducing mandatory large health warning labels on alcohol.  Thailand had proposed to introduce pictorial health warning labels taking up 30-50% of the alcohol container and the USA had protested this move at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

We are worried that wine exporting countries such as the USA would try to prevent countries from introducing such health warning labels, for example via the TPPA’s TBT chapter’s annex on wines and spirits. Although there may be a health exception proposed in the TPPA, past experience in the WTO shows that such an exception is very difficult to use.

As this is another issue of contention in the TPPA, CAP reiterates its call for the Malaysian government to withdraw from the TPPA negotiations.

Letter to the Editor – 25 November 2013