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WHO warns govt about risks of FTAs

The Nation, Bangkok

WHO warns govt about risks of FTAs

By Pratch Rujivanarom

8 July 2015

Say trade deals could have hidden impacts

Experts say the government should carefully consider before signing free-trade agreements (FTA) - as people could be hurt by deals that prolong drug patents and restrict information about medicine.

Acting World Health Organisation (WHO) representative to Thailand Richard Brown, in a speech at the International Trade and Health Conference at the Sukosol Hotel yesterday, said people’s rights should not be sacrificed to lower trade barriers.

"Careful consideration should be given to the potential impact of international trade on health before any legal agreements are established," Brown said.

The WHO, Public Health Ministry and other partners had agreed to strengthen the government’s technical and analytical capacity in order to discuss FTA deals and manage international health business, he said.

In accordance with the WHO’s concern, health ministry deputy permanent secretary Amnuay Gajeena said academic studies would be used to ensure that decisions about free trade deals would be made for the greater good of Thai people.

"The ministry has designated the international trade and healthcare issue to be among its nine international priority missions to prepare for the current trend, as international free trade is having even more impact on Thai people’s healthcare," Amnuay said.

The impact of international trade on healthcare has been a concern by non-government groups as well, as trade talks often include healthcare related issues such as extending the patents of medicines, protection of information about medical drugs or allowing products that harm people’s health.

Kannikar Kijtiwatchakul, co-ordinator of FTA Watch, said most trade deals already signed and 70 per cent of FTA discussions in the past decade were about regulations such as the control of drug patents.

"Thailand is a member state of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), so it is subject to WTO regulations but FTAs with developed countries such as the European Union or United States would force us to accept stricter terms for healthcare-related regulations," Kannikar explained.

She said drug companies could, for example, have a major impact and monopolise a country’s market if they could prolong medical patents and secure information about drugs. That could result in expensive medicines.

"Our study revealed that the country will bear up to Bt100 billion if the foreign drug companies are allowed to monopolise the medicine market, compare to only around a billion baht which the Thai business sector may lose if trade barriers weren’t lowered."

The problem was the government thinks FTAs are solely about trade, so only business agencies were invited to discuss on the decision, she said. This would make the country prone to long-term disadvantage.

"This is a good sign that information from other sides will be weighed. I emphasise that the government should be more careful before signing any new FTA," she said.