Big Pharma and the Rush to the Latest Dangerous Trade Pact: Part 1 of 2

A summit with leaders of the member states of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP). Pictured, from left, are Naoto Kan (Japan), Nguyễn Minh Triết (Vietnam), Julia Gillard (Australia), Sebastián Piñera (Chile), Lee Hsien Loong (Singapore), Barack Obama (United States), John Key (New Zealand), Hassanal Bolkiah (Brunei), Alan García (Peru), and Muhyiddin Yassin (Malaysia). Six of these leaders represent countries that are currently negotiating to join the group. [Photo by Gobierno de Chile, under CC 2.0 License]

(First of two parts)


To get a glimpse of how corporate-oriented trade deals, such as the currently proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, threaten both the public interest and national sovereignty, take a look at an innovative green energy initiative in Ontario, Canada.

In the years following the 2008 global economic crash, Ontario moved forward on a climate action plan billed the “most comprehensive renewable energy policy” in the world. It would provide premium rates for renewable energy for businesses, local governments, and first nations, and a lot of local jobs with a requirement that a minimum percentage of the labor force and materials be local to Ontario.

In This Changes Everything, her book on the climate crisis, Naomi Klein tells what happened next. Citing World Trade Organization rules, the European Union charged that the buy-local provisions would discriminate against non-Ontario businesses. The WTO ruled the local laws were illegal, and the project, the improved local economy, and contribution to climate action were scuttled.

Skip ahead to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the push to “Fast Track” the deal – meaning Congress could only vote the pact up or down, not amend it.

While final terms of the deal, being pushed by the Obama administration, many in Congress, the Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street, and other transnational corporations, remain a closely guarded secret, the history of similar trade deals provides ample reason for alarm. That’s probably why the deals remain secret to most legislators and the public, though its corporate backers apparently have an open book to the negotiations and its provisions.

From what information has been disclosed, it seems apparent that the TPP poses a significant threat to health, consumer safety regulations, and democracy – in each case subordinating a broad range of public protections, as well as local and even national laws to be overturned if they are ruled to interfere with corporate profits.

The gift to global pharmaceutical corporations may be the poster child for what is at stake with the TPP.


More profits for the drug giants, less access to lower cost medications 

In a Jan. 30 commentary in the New York Times, Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel economics laureate and leading critic of inequality, warned that the TPP would likely lead to less access to lower-cost generic drugs, producing even greater profits for the already wealthy pharmaceutical industry. 

Equally problematic is the drug giants’ “second stategy,” wrote Stiglitz, “to undermine government regulation of drug prices.” Many nations, especially those with single-payer or national health systems, make medications more accessible by negotiating bulk pricing agreements that mitigate the price gouging by the drug companies. 

Such bulk pricing power has been repeatedly blocked in the United States, thanks to massive lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry and its many compliant legislators in Congress and states. But that is not enough for the profit-hungry drug giants. The result has been drug prices in the United States. that are at times twice as expensive as in other countries, with such prohibitively priced medications such as Gilead Sciences' notorious $1,000-a-pill hepatitis C drug Sovaldi.

Now the trade representative of the United States is pushing for the TPP to allow drug companies the right to overturn restrictions on price gouging by other countries.

As the international relief agency Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) puts it, rules “proposed by U.S. negotiations” would “enhance patent and data protections for pharmaceutical companies, dismantle public health safeguards enshrined in international law, and obstruct price-lowering generic competition for medicines.”

MSF is especially alarmed about the impact on developing countries, which already struggle to make affordable medications available to their people.

As Stiglitz concluded, passage of the TPP, with this provision in particular, may result in “worse health and unnecessary death.”

The Washington establishment, however, continues to rally behind these concessions to the pharmaceutical industry as symbolized by a Washington Post editorial Feb. 4 responding to Stiglitz and the many TPP critics.

“Medical innovation,” the Post contends, “costs money – billions of dollars sometimes” and “drug prices must be high enough to encourage risk-taking.”

It’s a deceptive argument, at best.

Much of that vaunted research for innovation – 55 percent alone for the five top-selling drugs according to a National Institutes of Health internal document exposed by Public Citizen in 2001 – is actually funded by U.S. taxpayers.

U.S. drug companies hardly need any more help. In 2013 alone, the 25 wealthiest drug firms racked up more than $100 billion in profits while wildly inflating drug prices, all with the help of a compliant U.S. government that now wants to help them overturn protective laws in other countries.

The outrageous gift to the drug giants is by itself reason enough to oppose both the TPP and the “fast track” process to speed its passage. But there are plenty of other reasons as well. More in Part 2.

Chuck Idelson, Director of Communications for National Nurses United