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Minister of International Trade Ed Fast in Ottawa on May 2, 2013. Fast was in Brunei last week for the latest round of Trans-Pacific Partnership talks on anti-smoking policies.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Fast-moving trade talks aimed at reaching an ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal have hit a major snag over anti-smoking policies, as divisions emerged over a proposal critics say would expose governments to lawsuits from tobacco companies.

Canada is among the 12 TPP countries aiming to conclude a wide-ranging new deal by the end of this year that would involve more than 38 per cent of the world's economy. With little money to spend, the Conservative government is counting on its aggressive trade agenda to provide a policy splash and is working on an October Throne Speech that is sure to place a high priority on bringing various trade talks to a close.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership debate over tobacco became heated over the weekend, after U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman announced a new position that would allow legal challenges against a country's anti-smoking policies. Mr. Froman said the change was inspired by extensive consultation with Congress and U.S. stakeholders, and the U.S. Department of Health said it was an important step forward for public health.

But critics said the change was a victory for tobacco lobbyists, because it reversed the original U.S. position of creating a "safe harbour" in the TPP so countries could adopt anti-tobacco measures without fear of legal reprisal.

It is a highly sensitive debate, given global tobacco firms have previously mounted legal challenges against such policies, including a failed attempt to stop Australia from forcing companies to sell cigarettes in plain packaging with graphic health warnings.

Canadian Trade Minister Ed Fast, who was in Brunei last week for the latest round of talks, said public health is taken very seriously, but declined to be more specific on the latest U.S. position.

"We ensure that these agreements actually serve those Canadian interests by promoting health, and I can assure you that even on the issue of tobacco, that's exactly what we will be doing," he said in an interview from Kuwait.

On Saturday, Mr. Fast opened the first Tim Hortons restaurant in Kuwait, posing for the cameras at an event that had the minister shoot a ceremonial puck into a hockey net. Later this week, he will visit Turkey and Saudi Arabia to promote trade.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave Mr. Fast a vote of confidence this summer by keeping the B.C. MP in the trade portfolio. Mr. Fast has maintained a hectic travel schedule, but he has yet to score big.

More than two years have passed since Governor-General David Johnston read the government's last throne speech, which promised a trade deal with the European Union in 2012 and free trade with India by 2013. Both talks are still ongoing.

Since 2006, Canada has brought five free-trade agreements into force – with Colombia, the European Free Trade Association (made up of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland), Jordan, Panama and Peru. In 2011, Canada concluded negotiations with Honduras.

NDP trade critic Don Davies said the Harper government made a strategic error by making trade deals such a high-level political priority.

"One of the first rules of negotiating is you do not convey to your opponent that you're desperate for a deal," he said. "Other countries know that what they can do is out-wait us."

The TPP talks are suddenly a hot domestic issue in the U.S. Anti-smoking groups are strongly condemning the latest proposal on tobacco, as is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who warned in The New York Times that it "would be a colossal public health mistake and potentially contribute to the deaths of tens of millions of people around the world."

World Trade Online reported Sunday from Brunei that the Malaysian government is poised to table a proposal that would completely carve out tobacco-control measures from the TPP.

The 11 other countries in the TPP talks are Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

Canada currently has 13 separate free-trade negotiations that are ongoing. They involve the Caribbean Community, the Central America Four (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua), the Dominican Republic, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Morocco, Singapore, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Turkey, Ukraine and efforts to modernize the Canada-Costa Rica Free Trade Agreement.

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