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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/18/15

Obama's Health Care Corporate Friendly Trade Agreements could have major effects on patients' and the public's health

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In 2011, Australia passed a tobacco-control law to discourage smoking. It required cigarettes to be sold in plain packages with prominent warnings, with brand information relegated to the bottom of the box. Touted as 'one of the most momentous public health measures in Australia's history' by the country's health minister, the law was meant to deter a habit that will ultimately kill 1.8 million current Australian smokers, according to a recent study. After the country's highest court upheld the constitutionality of the anti-smoking law, tobacco giant Philip Morris claimed that it violated the company's corporate rights and launched a suit using a little-known provision called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). The case is pending, as is a similar case against Uruguay. A similar tobacco-control measure in New Zealand is on hold pending the outcome of these cases.

So these examples suggest that national laws meant to promote the public health could be challenged in these trade tribunals by multinational corporations based on these laws' postulated effects on corporate profits, regardless of the laws' public health rationale or legality in their own countries.

Furthermore, a letter to the Lancet(1) noted,

Investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions allow investors to sue governments if policy changes or even court rulings substantially affect the value of their investment, yet do not allow governments to sue investors for breaching the right to health. ISDS processes constrain governments' abilities to regulate on the basis of the precautionary principle, or even to implement health policies on the basis of established evidence. These processes can have a chilling effect on efforts to address key health issues, such as alcohol, the obesity epidemic, and climate change. In New Zealand, the fear of costly ISDS litigation is already constraining government regulation on tobacco plain packaging.

Thus, creation of such international tribunals could favor financial concerns of multinational corporations over individual countries' governments' attempts to promote health care or public health. So, while these undemocratic tribunals are touted as a way to reduce non-tariff trade barriers, an editorial in the British Medical Journal(2) asserted,

Yet these barriers are some of our most prized social and environmental standards, including regulations on food safety, pesticide residues, and toxic chemicals....

Not only would these tribunals we able to override national laws, their operation would lack procedural safeguards. Demonstrating that opposition to these trade agreements is also multinational, an article in the UK Independent in October, 2014, noted,

Critics say the tribunals, held under the so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system, subvert democratic justice, giving power over foreign citizens to big companies. Hearings are held in private, in international courts at the World Bank in Washington DC, bypassing the legal system of the country being sued, meaning details are often impossible to uncover. In some cases t he very existence of the case is not made public.

In addition, per the article in Foreign Policy,

Critics like Global Trade Watch, a division of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, say the ISDS system is anti-democratic. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called for the ISDS language to be stripped out of the deal, writing in the Washington Post in February, 'If a final TPP agreement includes Investor-State Dispute Settlement, the only winners will be multinational corporations.' The problem is that the ISDS system lacks many procedural safeguards fundamental to the rule of law. The tribunals, run by the World Bank and the United Nations, are three-judge panels composed of highly paid private lawyers picked from a limited pool by states and corporations; individual lawyers can switch between serving as judges and advocates on behalf of corporations in different cases. And there is no comprehensive code of judicial conduct guiding the panelists on matters such as conflicts of interest.

Although the panels adjudicate disputes worth millions or even billions of dollars, they are not accountable to any elected body. Moreover, there is no system of precedent binding judges to an established body of decision-making, making it difficult for the parties to discern the applicable standards and their likelihood of success. And finally, there are no appeals, either within the ISDS system or externally, on the merits of decisions. An annulment is only possible for limited procedural errors, and those proceedings are heard before a different panel drawn from the same pool of professionals.

Under the system, states are deprived of the right to resolve these disputes since corporations can proceed directly to the tribunals without exhausting domestic remedies. But this privilege is not reciprocal: Corporations are not subject to suit in the tribunals by those harmed by their actions. Foreign companies are thus granted expanded rights without corresponding responsibilities.

Finally, in May, 2015, the United Nations special rapporteur on promotion of a democratic and equitable international order suggested that the proposed international tribunals would undermine human rights and violate the UN charter (per this Guardian article).

Further criticism of the tribunals came from the UK Labour party Shadow Health Secretary (as of April, 2014) who felt it would leave British general practitioners "powerless to resist legal challenges from US health giants with huge financial resources in the event of a contractual dispute (per the Independent).

To summarize thus far: international trade agreements being pushed by the US government could set up trade tribunals that could reverse national laws meant to protect health and safety. Such tribunals would not follow the procedures used, for example, in US courts, and could not be held accountable by individual governments. Various aspects of these tribunals, and recent actions involving tribunals already set up by earlier trade agreements suggest the process may be heavily biased in favor of the financial interests of multinational corporation, and against patients' and the public's health. Thus, health care and public health professionals ought to be alarmed about new agreements that could set up new tribunals, or expand the reach of existing tribunals.

Intellectual Property Rights vs Access to Health Care

Another set of problems affecting patients' and the public's health are provisions in trade agreements favoring corporate "intellectual property" over access to drugs, devices and health care. Stiglitz wrote in 2014,

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Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at Brown University, co-founder Health Care Renewal, and President of FIRM - the Foundation for Integrity and Responsibility in Medicine, a not-for-profit organization (NGO) designed to raise (more...)

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