The Foreign Service Journal, a professional magazine published by the American Foreign Service Association, has exposed a U.S. foreign policy dilemma: the same government that crusades against Big Tobacco at home encourages the export of cigarettes and other dangerous and unhealthy products to Third World nations.
But a solution to this contradiction could cost American exporters billions of dollars.
"The U.S. government is backing away from its support for tobacco exports, but it's a hard habit to break," two investigative journalists wrote in the November issue of the Journal. They revealed that seven major tobacco companies, working as the "tobacco heritage committee," in 1986 financed an expensive renovation of the State Department's ceremonial rooms in Washington, D.C. In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the State Department led the fight to open up foreign markets for American cigarettes by filing unfair trade practice complaints against Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, among others.
When the Clinton Administration took office in 1993, Washington snuffed out the aggressive promotion of tobacco products by the Commerce Department and U.S. Trade Representative and formed an inter-agency task force to develop a more coherent tobacco policy. Six years later, however, according to the journalists, "U.S. policy on tobacco overseas is as clouded as ever."
Tobacco isn't the only dangerous product our government is promoting overseas. Others include questionable pesticides, banned pharmaceuticals and even toxic waste. In each case the government treats with benign neglect "dirty" exports produced by giant American corporations, whose top executives contribute heavily to political campaigns. This isn't a Democrat vs. Republican issue; rather, it's a question of the undue influence of big campaign contributors.
Let's look at tobacco first. Foreign Service Journal notes that comprehensive tobacco legislation failed in Congress in the summer of 1998 after a successful lobbying campaign in which Big Tobacco spent $40 million in issue ads. And the November 1998 tobacco settlement with the states placed no restrictions on companies' overseas operations, where profits are booming even as sales at home decline. Although the Agriculture Department has been prohibited since 1993 from promoting the sale or export of tobacco products, language inserted into the law by pro-tobacco congressmen orders American embassies "to seek elimination of discriminatory trade practices" in order "to ensure equal access to a shrinking (foreign) market for tobacco."
"It bothers me that we want to stop American kids from smoking, yet we don't seem to have the same degree of concern about Asian or African kids," said Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., a frequent thorn in the side of Washington special interest groups.
"The problem is once (trade) discrimination is raised, health issues are off the table," added John Bloom, a Washington-based lawyer who is a tobacco policy consultant to health groups.
Our government directly subsidizes tobacco in Malawi, a poverty-stricken country in southern Africa through a program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development. A primary objective of this 4-year-old program is to increase the production of burley tobacco by Malawi's "smallholder" farmers. As of October 1998 the U.S. government had spent approximately $5 million on this project.
But, as I mentioned, tobacco isn't the only dangerous product that our tax dollars are subsidizing overseas. In an article titled "Making the World Safe for Pesticides," Foreign Service Journal warns American diplomats that "there is a potential conflict between U.S. commercial interests and the possible health and environmental risks posed by the use of restricted pesticides in their host countries."
In one particularly egregious 1995 case, 25,000 workers from 12 developing countries sued several American pesticide makers when it was discovered that the pesticide DBCP, allegedly exported from the U.S., caused sterility. And in Ecuador, an American diplomat worried that pesticides exported from the U.S. could contaminate bananas shipped to American consumers.
Next, I was surprised to learn that new legislation makes it easier than ever for American drug companies to export pharmaceutical products that are banned in the U.S.
The Journal notes that the FDA Export Reform and Enhancement Act of 1996 permits the sale of drugs not approved for use in the U.S. almost anywhere in the world. The Journal asserts that the 1996 Act, which attempted to balance business and health concerns, tipped the scale too far toward trade. That isn't news, however, since the Clinton Administration almost always decides in favor of trade. Just look at the export of sensitive U.S. missile technology to Communist China, for example.
And finally there's the issue of toxic waste, which is a major concern here in Nevada. Between 1991 and 1994, the Journal reports, a Louisiana chemical company exported 300,000 pounds of depleted mercury catalyst to a chemicals plant in South Africa, where 28 workers died and local water supplies were contaminated. The United States, the world's largest producer of hazardous wastes, is the only industrialized country that hasn't ratified the 1989 United Nations Convention on Hazardous Waste.
On and on it goes. A health-conscious nation that claims to be environmentally sensitive turns a blind eye to the export of "dirty" products including cigarettes and toxic waste. Although most Americans don't care about foreign policy, our overseas friends and allies are offended by this kind of hypocrisy. I don't blame them, and neither should you.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.