For more than two decades, public health scholars and proponents have demonstrated concern about the negative effects of trade liberalisation on tobacco control policies. However, there is little theoretically-guided, empirical research across time and space that evaluates this relationship. Accordingly, we use one major region that has experienced rapid and significant recent liberalisation, Southeast Asia, and examine key tobacco control-relevant outcomes between 1999 and 2012. While we find a modest increase in regional trade in tobacco products in some countries, the effects on tobacco affordability and consumption are very mixed with no clear link to liberalisation. We argue that widespread penetration of the region by transnational tobacco firms is likely mitigating the effects of trade liberalisation. Notably, tobacco control policies have also generally improved across the region, part of which is likely the result of successful regional and global efforts by civil society, governments and intergovernmental organisations. The results suggest that scholars and public health proponents should move the focus away from narrow economic aspects of liberalisation toward specific issues that are more likely to affect tobacco control, such as intellectual property rights protections and investor–state dispute settlement.
- Low/Middle income country
- Public policy
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