The prime objective of free trade is to increase consumption of goods, a direct conflict with the health-based
interests of discouraging excessive
The Politics of Safety: From Local to Global.
Many injury prevention successes derive from effective political work.
Right now there are global negotiations underway that will directly influence the efforts of injury prevention practitioners and
In recent years, the administrative machinery of global trade has garnered considerable power over domestic health and safety policy. The
World Trade Organization (WTO), established in 1994 to administer the Global Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), is charged with
eliminating trade obstacles and resolving international trade disputes. The WTO routinely considers regulatory standards to be trade violations
and subjects nations to monetary penalties. To date, much of the public outcry against the WTO has been framed by environmental, food safety and
human rights activists.
It is now time, for those of us interested in injury prevention, to join the public debate.
In the political arena, the primacy of free trade creates considerable challenges for the public health community. Those who advocate for
strict injury prevention standards, automobile safety, fire prevention and the like, must contend with domestic commercial opposition and also
unelected international trade officials whose critical analysis of risk bears little relation to that of public health advocates. Furthermore,
these unelected officials have the authority to quietly supercede local law.
The conclusion here for injury prevention advocates around the world is to get involved. Global trade negotiations are going on now. In
November, the WTO' fourth ministerial conference will take place in Doha, Qatar. This is the highest decision making body of the WTO and
they will discuss many issues related to public health and safety, core labor rights, increased transparency of trade disputes, and pushing
forward with the GATS trade in services.
An example of the impact on injury prevention: GATS, Alcohol Policy and Injury Prevention
The WTO is currently negotiating the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) which will impact the delivery of services within
sovereign nations. In trade lingo, services include "anything you can't drop on your
foot. " In the case of alcohol, GATS would impact services
related to the manufacture, distribution and advertising of alcoholic beverages. We know that high alcohol consumption contributes to
unintentional as well as violent injury. In response, the injury prevention community has put pressure on policy makers to regulate
alcohol distribution and access ,and to limit alcohol advertisements. The WTO , however has ruled against such measures under the GATT
agreement. Under GATS, alcohol injury prevention strategies will be even more vulnerable.
Alcohol consumption has very real public health costs associated with injury, violence, disease, mental health, crime and lost productivity.
Linking tax rates with alcohol content serves two purposes; it requires the manufacturer to pay the true costs of its products, and reduces
alcohol consumption. The prime objective of free trade, though, is to increase consumption of goods, a direct conflict with the health-based
interests of discouraging excessive drinking.
In an alcohol tax dispute filed by the US against Chile, progressive content-based taxation was deemed to be a trade violation. Under WTO
rules, products imported from member nations must be treated no less favorably than like products of domestic origin. The result of
tax system was that 95% of foreign products were taxed at the highest rate, while 75% of the Chilean alcoholic products were taxed at the
lowest rate. The EU argued that the lower alcohol Chilean and higher alcohol foreign beverages were
"like products" and therefore the higher
tax rate violated trade policy. Chile countered that alcohol content was a neutral category, that the products were not
"like products" and that the effect on foreign imports was an unintended consequence of
their legitimate tax system. The WTO disagreed.
Another case challenges Swedish alcohol advertising restrictions. The law passed for the express purpose of reducing alcohol related harm
disallows ads which are insistent on or encourage alcohol consumption. The law also prohibits television and radio ads, and places restrictions
on the placement of print ads. In order to preserve these restrictions, Swedish authorities are obliged to prove that the measure is
proportionate to its goal, that there are no alternative approaches which would be less restrictive, and that the regulation is not
arbitrary, discriminatory or a protectionist measure in disguise.
The GATS agreement now under negotiation will further endanger national and local alcohol policy. The GATS definition of state run enterprise
or monopoly is extremely narrow and may expose government alcohol monopolies to international oversight and restrictions. In addition,
GATS would effect a myriad of services related to alcohol including restrictions placed on who can buy and sell liquor, number and location
of distribution outlets and hours of sale.
For more information on trade visit the websites of Public Citizen
Global Trade Watch (www.publiccitizen.org/trade/), the WTO
(www.wto.org), and the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue
The Politics of Safety - from Local to Global: a presentation made at the Injury Prevention Network of Aotearoa New Zealand 2001 Conference at the Victoria University of Wellington in November, 2001.