The Trans-Pacific Partnership Is Terrible for Public Health

Fifteen years ago, basic AIDS drugs cost more than $10,000 per person per year. Many of the people who needed them most -- especially those living in poor countries -- couldn't pay. Millions died before public health advocates persuaded the U.S. and other governments to act -- not because needed medicine didn't exist, but because those who needed it couldn't afford it.

Things began to change in 2001, when an Indian generic medicine firm called Cipla introduced a dollar-a-day AIDS drug cocktail. President Bush, to his great credit, created a phenomenally successful global AIDS relief program not long after. Countless lives have been saved since.

That story -- of smart government action and a generic pharmaceutical company's willingness to act- - provides an important contrast to what's happening today as federal negotiators work out terms of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a pending trade deal between the U.S. and 11 Asian trading partners. Despite the damage it would do to global health, U.S. officials are advancing special rules that expand drug giants' power under TPP, blocking generic drug competition that could save the lives of people suffering from cancer, HIV and other diseases. Our negotiators have even pushed for the agreement to provide tobacco companies with special rights to sue governments and undermine health regulation in quasi-judicial foreign tribunals.

We didn't have to end up here. In 2007, Democratic leaders in Congress brokered a deal with the Bush administration to reduce the harmful consequences of U.S. trade policy on workers, our environment and our health. But the so-called May 10 agreement was only a start.

We hoped the Obama administration would build on that agreement and refocus trade policy and strategy on the needs of working people. Unfortunately, the administration has backtracked from even the modest safeguards President Bush supported.

This failure is particularly acute in the area of public health. American proposals for TPP language undermine countries' drug reimbursement programs and restrict our partners' efforts to curb youth smoking through honest cigarette packaging. Other Obama administration proposals facilitate patent abuse and could impede AIDS relief efforts in Vietnam.

One especially distressing U.S. proposal imposes long monopoly periods for cancer drugs and other biotech medicines. Most new cancer medicines are priced at more than $100,000 per person, to the outrage of many oncologists. Without competition reducing prices, public programs in developing countries simply won't be able to provide lifesaving treatments.

The White House made a public pledge to reduce the high costs of these same cancer medicines for Americans. But if the administration is supporting lengthy monopoly periods in the final TPP draft, any future Congressional effort to shorten the monopoly period in the U.S. would violate our TPP obligations, subjecting the federal government to trade sanctions and pharmaceutical lawsuits outside the purview of U.S. courts.

That's why Big Pharma wants this secretive rule. Trade agreements have become a favorite tool for corporations and their lobbyists to get what they want when Congress -- or any country's deliberative body -- rejects their arguments. Jamming a few paragraphs into an enormous, complicated international agreement can be worth billions of dollars and freeze the public out of the process.

According to the Sunlight Foundation, pharmaceutical company lobbying reports mentioned TPP 251 times in a recent four-year period, far more than any other industry. That money has paid off: the U.S. Trade Representative seems to be taking Big Pharma's line. Doctors Without Borders calls TPP the "worst trade deal ever" for access to medicines. The Vatican, the American Medical Association and AARP, among many other organizations, have raised serious concerns about the damage it would certainly do to public health.

The TPP is a bad deal for taxpayers, for doctors and for everyone who believes in corporate transparency. If rammed through Congress via fast-track trade authority, which doesn't allow Congress to offer any amendments, it will lead to lost jobs and lost lives.

The Constitution assigns Congress the responsibility to make trade policy. It's time to take that responsibility seriously.

This column was co-authored with Peter Maybarduk, Director of Public Citizen's Global Access to Medicines Program