TPPA, bad for your health?

Is the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) the biggest threat to our democracy in a generation, or is it really going to be everything the government says it will be? As a nurse working in the New Zealand health care system, this is an issue that will impact on the way healthcare will be delivered for New Zealanders. It's important to look at the issues the TPPA raises with a critical eye so we can confront the corporate agenda with an informed argument.

The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) is a regional trade agreement currently being negotiated by 11 Pacific Rim countries, excluding China. To put it in context, the countries involved include 10% of the worlds population and their economies account for 30% of global gross domestic product (GDP). The negotiations are now in their 10th year and while the negotiations are being conducted under a veil of secrecy, substantive leaks over the past 4 years have revealed a broad view of the proposed content. Citizens of the involved countries are actively excluded from the negotiation, although many senior corporate executives and their representatives are active participants. Even the US congress; the elected officials of the most powerful country on the planet, have only recently been given limited access to the interim proceedings of the TPPA. This is not acceptable. We have the right to know about significant changes for New Zealand, and to have a say about it.

The stated goals of the TPPA are to improve the exchange of goods and services, enhance global industrial vertical integration and enlarge the scope of intellectual property protection. However from the leaks that have been made available, it is clearly much more than this. The dictates of the agreement, in all but name a treaty, could, for the most part, override national guidelines and regulations in the corporate arena that pertain to health. The regulatory structure embedded in the TPPA withdraws jurisdiction from national judicial systems and puts it in extraterritorial tribunals designed to favor trade/corporate interests.

The fact that this agreement is being negotiated in secret should raise alarm bells. Its content will not be disclosed to the people of New Zealand and the New Zealand Parliament until after it has been signed, by which time the terms will have been agreed among the twelve participating countries. In addition, it is understood that the United States of America claims the right to decide whether New Zealand has altered its laws to comply with the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and to require further changes to our laws if they have a different interpretation of New Zealand’s obligations.

It is difficult to accept assurances from the former Minister of Health that health is high on the agenda of TPPA negotiators when there has been so little public health representation in the negotiation process. Whereas hundreds of US corporate advisors have been granted access to negotiation drafts of the TPPA. Independent health advisors, including representatives from the WHO, have effectively been excluded. But the muzzling of health policy is probably even more concerning. Under the TPPA, foreign investors would be able to sue the Government if changes to health policy affect an investment, say significantly reducing expected profits. The TPPA would for the first time expose the NZ Government to possible Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) lawsuits from transnational corporations based in the USA. US companies have an extensive track record of aggressively pursuing claims under existing trade agreements. The director general of the World Health Organisation Dr. Margaret Chan calls this "handcuffing". In practice, even the threat of action can have a handcuffing effect. She goes on to say;

"One particularly disturbing trend is the use of foreign investment agreements to handcuff governments and restrict their policy space... In my view, something is fundamentally wrong in this world when a corporation can challenge government policies introduced to protect the public from a product that kills."

In Canada, where they are subject to the terms and conditions of NAFTA and other 'free trade' deals, all new health laws must be screened to make sure they are compatible with trade agreements. In New Zealand, action on plain packaging of cigarettes has already been delayed; we're waiting because a tobacco company is suing Australia.

As it stands the TPPA poses serious risks to global public health, particularly chronic, non-communicable diseases. At greatest risk are national tobacco regulations (such as plain packaging), regulations governing the emergence of generic drugs and controls over food imports by transnational corporations.

The way in which the TPPA will affect generic drugs are through greater corporate access to Pharmac. Pharmac is very successful in doing what it was set up to do: making medicines more affordable. Pharmac is the national medicines purchasing agency that has achieved the greatest success anywhere in the world in balancing the health interests of people and communities against the business interests of big medicines companies. Pharmac is under attack by the pharmaceutical industry because it is successful, and the ‘Pharmac model’ is being adopted by other countries needing a better balance between business and health interests. Pharmac purchases medicines for New Zealanders at prices around half those achieved by Australia’s medicines purchasing agency and around a third the price demanded in the US. Yes, this is painful to the medicines industry but it means huge savings for the New Zealand health sector.

With greater access to Pharmac, pressure on the nation's health budget would escalate because of delayed introduction of generic medicines, longer exclusive protections for expensive new cancer and immunosuppressant medicines and weakening of Pharmac. Medicines would become less affordable overall.

Under the TPPA, we could effectively forfeit our right to make sensible laws. Instead, foreign investors would be given a powerful new lever to delay sound new health regulations for their own commercial interests. Good public health policy should respond to new evidence. Lead paint was used for many years before the health risks to young children became undeniable; until recently synthetic cannabis-like drugs were sold over the counter in NZ; and thalidomide was initially sold without prescription to thousands of pregnant women before leading to death and serious deformity in thousands of children. As evidence of harm accumulated, governments brought in controls. 

These examples illustrate why New Zealand's freedom to modify regulation based on the ‘precautionary principle' must not be undermined by the TPP. Indeed, even when the evidence of harm is substantial, industries such as Tobacco have a long and consistent history of systematically undermining and legally contesting the available scientific evidence, aiming to ensure that the benefit of any doubt is given to their own commercial interests rather than health.

Concern about the TPPA is not just a fringe Left concern, warnings are being sounded across the spectrum. This was expressed succinctly by the Nobel Prize winning economist, and former Chief Economist of The World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, in the New York Times earlier this year:

“There is a real risk that it (the TPP) will benefit the wealthiest sliver of the American and global elite at the expense of everyone else”

“Corporations may profit (from the TPP), and it is even possible, though far from assured, that gross domestic product as conventionally measured will increase. But the well-being of ordinary citizens is likely to take a hit.”

The TPPA represents the biggest corporate power grab in a generation and its implications for health will be widely felt. Resistance to the TPPA needs to come from all angles before it's too late. Talk to your workmates, inform yourself, attend one of the many protest actions, organise one yourself. The fight isn't over.

Organise, Agitate, Resist.

See you in the streets.
Nico, SA.

Look for events happening nationwide this saturday as part of the international day of action here


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