The deadly cost of secret free trade deals

Ottawa Citizen, Canada

The deadly cost of secret free trade deals

By Richard Elliott

7 August 2013

Once again, our government is negotiating a trade deal in secret — and once again, the chorus of “free market” fundamentalists is assuring us that what’s good for lining corporate pockets must be good for us all.

In the matter of ongoing negotiations between 12 countries, including Canada, for a new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, it is not surprising that the Fraser Institute is arguing in favour of even stricter intellectual property rules to protect and inflate the profits of multinational pharmaceutical companies.

But as to the purported benefits for regular Canadians, we have no way of knowing. While hundreds of corporate lobbyists have privileged access to TPP negotiations, the public is being kept entirely in the dark about what could be one of the most far-reaching trade agreements ever seen.

The TPP will affect over half a billion people, including Canadians, and potentially many more. Yet the only information available about negotiations has been obtained through partial leaked texts of some countries’ proposals.

And as those details leak, global opposition to the deal grows — including opposition to the U.S. and big pharma, which together are aggressively pushing far-reaching proposals that would further hamper the ability of millions of people worldwide, including Canadians, to access necessary medications at prices that they can afford.

So why should we be worried? The U.S. and big pharma have three major sets of demands they want included in the TPP.

First, they want even more stringent rules on intellectual property, far outstripping what already exists at the World Trade Organization. Extended patent terms would permit even longer monopolies and aggressive new “data exclusivity” rules would further obstruct competition — in short: higher, more sustained profits for brand-name drug companies at the expense of both provincial health care plans and individual Canadians who have to pay more for the medicines they need. Big pharma also wants stronger “enforcement” measures, such as those already used repeatedly in Europe to disrupt the transit of lower-cost, generic medicines to developing countries, even where no valid patents existed to prevent the supply of those medicines.

Second, they are demanding the TPP include new rules to undermine countries’ ability to regulate pharmaceutical marketing, as well as pricing and reimbursement — for example, through Canada’s federal legislation to prevent “excessive pricing” of patented medicines and through the purchasing power of provincial public health insurance plans.

Again, this means more profits for them, higher costs for us.

Finally, but by no means least, big pharma is demanding an “investment” chapter, such as that found in the North-American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Such “investor-state” provisions give companies the right to sue sovereign countries for billions of dollars if their laws or regulations interfere with those companies’ “expectations” of profit. Under NAFTA’s investment chapter, Canada has already paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to private corporations challenging rules aimed at protecting the environment and public health.

Last year, the multinational pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly launched an unprecedented challenge against Canada under NAFTA’s investment chapter, after our courts found two of the company’s patents invalid under Canadian patent law. The company is demanding $500 million in compensation from Canadian taxpayers.

While these TPP demands are dangerous for Canadians, they are deadly for people around the world, especially the millions of poor people in need of medicines in developing countries.

During the most recent round of negotiations in mid-July, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) issued an open letter to TPP countries, warning that “unless certain damaging provisions are removed, the TPP has the potential to become the most harmful pact ever for access to medicines.”

Where the lives of millions are at stake, the Canadian government must commit to transparency and make public the text of all proposals being discussed around the TPP. We should stand alongside Australia in defending our national sovereignty by refusing to include any “investment” chapter at all. And most importantly, Canada should reject any proposals on intellectual property that go beyond the already strict rules negotiated at the World Trade Organization.

As Canadians, we need to pay attention to what the Harper government is negotiating in secret — it affects access to medicines both here at home and in the developing world, and threatens to derail commitments we have made to promote global health.

If big pharma gets its way, so-called “free” trade will carry a deadly cost.

Richard Elliott is the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

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