Anti-smoking campaigns have been growing exponentially larger over the years, however, smoking is still a widespread problem that kills over five million people each year. More and more countries are wanting to adopt smoking laws, but tobacco companies, like British American Tobacco and Philip Morris International, threaten to call upon their legal dogs and intimidate poorer to prevent them from passing such laws.

Signed almost nine years ago by 170 countries, The World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is the largest health treaty and places restrictions on how tobacco companies advertise, package, and sell its products around the world.

The New York Times reported, “The industry is warning countries that their tobacco laws violate an expanding web of trade and investment treaties.” Basically they are threatening lawsuits against poorer countries that want to implement smoking laws for the betterment of their population’s health.

The New York Times cites Namibia as an example. Namibia’s smoking rate saw a drastic increase among women and the country passed stricter measures in its smoking laws. But the tobacco industry “bombarded” government officials, warning them that the law apparently violated trade treaties. Namibia has not since passed a single new smoking law for fear of “a punishingly expensive legal battle.”

Uruguay, Norway, and Australia have also received similar threats and legal actions from tobacco companies regarding those countries’ smoking laws.

These actions were “deliberately designed to instill fear,” said WHO director general Dr. Margaret Chan. “The wolf is no longer in sheep’s clothing, and its teeth are bared.”

This tactic used by tobacco companies is corporate bullying, plain and simple. These companies know that countries like Namibia and Uruguay don’t have the money to wage a multimillion-dollar legal war. And because of that, the companies can easily get away with pushing around smaller, poorer governments. In 2012, Philip Morris’s net revenue was $77 billion, more than Uruguay’s entire GDP.  

Namibia has had enough of the intimidation, however.

“We have decided to put our foot down,” said Namibian health minister Dr. Richard Kamwi. “If they want to go to court, we will see them there.”

Unfortunately, one thing that could have a chance to protect them from Big Tobacco is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement (TPP). On the one hand, the TPP has been criticized as it “would decrease or weaken consumer protections.” In the past, corporations have used trade agreements to bolster laws and regulations that benefit only them as “trade agreements have become a weapon of choice for tobacco companies seeking to thwart the toughest rules.”

But on the other hand, lawmakers have been trying to make the TPP to where it could have some semblance of a consumer protection by urging President Obama to instill protections against Big Tobacco. There were once such proposals in place, but the Obama Administration softened those provisions back in August.  

“Tobacco companies are exploiting trade law to undermine common sense efforts to reduce smoking and needless death from tobacco use,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) “These actions are appalling, and the Administration must do all it can to ensure there are barriers to abusive suits in the TPP.”

Joshua de Leon is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire.