Trade Deals Should Come With Their Own Warnings for Public Health

The TPP would grant much greater leverage to block access to lower priced life saving medications.

 Second in a series

Last September, the small West African nation Togo launched a public health campaign about the hazards of smoking. First they put warning labels in three languages on cigarette packages. Since Togo is one of the poorest countries in the world with a high illiteracy rate, they then added graphic images, such as smokers’ diseased lungs, similar to a model used by Australia.

That’s when the roof fell in. As the brilliant comic John Oliver chronicled on his HBO show Last Week Tonight Feb. 15, the government of Togo received a letter from Phillip Morris International (PMI), which owns seven of the top 15 best-selling cigarette brands, threatening “an incalculable amount of international trade litigation.”

Noting that Phillip Morris’ $80 billion in annual revenues dwarfs Togo’s gross domestic product of $4.3 billion, Oliver explained that Togo, “justifiably terrified by the threat of billion dollar settlements, backed down from a public health law that many people wanted.”

Togo was not alone. PMI and other tobacco giants also cited global trade pacts to overturn packaging laws for tobacco in Australia (which ultimately won a court fight with PMI), Uruguay, Namibia, and the Solomon Islands. “That’s right,” intoned Oliver, “a company was able to sue a country over a public health measure through an international court.”

Thus the problem with so many of the international trade deals signed at the behest of transnational corporations over the past three decades: National sovereignty is overridden by the inexorable push for higher corporate profits, with public health frequently a first target.

President Obama and leaders of Congress are presently pushing the next set of trade deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and seeking fast track authority that would bar critics of the handouts to corporate interests from amending the deals and even limiting debate.

If there’s one sign of whose ox is likely to be gored, just note that much of the language was written by Wall Street lobbyists and that corporate executives have had an advance look at the language of the proposed deals that are still being kept secret from not only the public but even many members of Congress.

But based on past experience – and what leaks have emerged – it is evident that the deals pose a significant threat to public health, consumer protections, and the environment. As well as to the democratic rights of any nation’s people to enact laws that will not be overturned by legal action or multi billion dollar bullying by corporations that, like Phillip Morris, are wealthier than many nations.

The TPP, for example, would grant much greater leverage to block access to lower-priced life saving medications, as chronicled in the first part of this series.

Public Citizen has warned that the TPP would require the United States to allow food imports that fail to meet U.S. safety guidelines, and that any food safety rules on use of pesticides, additives, or labeling requirements could be challenged as a barrier to trade.

Another proposed trade agreement, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, would provide further license for healthcare corporations to undermine national health systems.

Yet a third trade deal in the works, the equally secretive Trade in Services Agreement, would promote privatization of health services.

According to a leaked document analyzed by Public Services International, the TISA negotiators are salivating over a “huge untapped potential for the globalization of healthcare services” mainly because “healthcare services (are) funded and provided by state or welfare organizations and (with) virtually no interest for foreign competitors due to lack of market-orientated scope for activity.”

In addition to providing the legal recourse for corporations to use international courts to overturn national or local laws they don’t like, all three of the current draft agreements contain an “investor-state dispute settlements” provision, which establishes separate “corporate courts” to adjudicate complaints, because of supposed infringement on their marketing.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has provided many examples of the land mines for the public interest.

Citing NAFTA, drug giant Eli Lilly sued the Canadian government after Canadian courts invalidated the company’s monopoly patents. In another example, a group of private investors led by an Arizona entrepreneur challenged Canadian restrictions on for-profit surgery centers.

In another prominent case, Lone Pine Resources, a big oil and gas company, is suing the Canadian province of Quebec under the rules of NAFTA over a moratorium on the environmentally dangerous process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  

Stewart Trew of the Council of Canadians in Ottawa has warned of more lawsuits if the TPP and similar trade deals are approved as they are likely to include investor protection provisions similar to NAFTA’s.