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05 May 2015

There is mounting disquiet the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal will saddle the country with more expensive medicines and hobble public health measures despite assurances to the contrary from the Federal Government.

Public health experts have warned a leaked draft of the deal’s investments chapter show the agreement would enable companies to sue governments over public health policies that harm their interests.

La Trobe University public health expert Deborah Gleeson, Australian National University Professor of Health Equity Sharon Friel and ANU Research Fellow Kyla Tienhaara wrote in The Conversation that although the draft chapter contained a footnote specifying Australia would be exempt from so-called investor-state dispute settlement provisions, this exclusion was conditional and limited.

The analysis came as the World Medical Association Council passed a resolution calling on governments negotiating trade deals to ensure that public health was prioritised over commercial interests by including wide exclusions for health policies and did not include provisions that compromised access to medicines and diagnostic, therapeutic and surgical techniques.

In particular, the WMA urged governments to oppose provisions to allow patenting of diagnostic, therapeutic and surgical techniques, the prolongation of patents by making minor changes to existing drugs, and the manipulation of patent conditions to block the entry of generic substitutes.

Trade Minister Andrew Robb has insisted the Government will not sign up to any deal that make the country worse off, and has negotiated ‘carve-outs’ from the investment provisions for health and environmental public policy.

Senior Coalition Senator Marise Payne told the Senate on 18 March that the Government would “not accept any outcome in the TPP that would adversely affect Australia’s health system”.

“We will not sign up to any international agreement that restricts the Australian Government’s capacity to govern in Australia’s own interests,” the Senator said.

But AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis told the ABC’s 7.30 Report that “the details really matter here”.

“If he [Mr Robb] says the PBS is protected but the agreement extends intellectual property rights or patent laws I favour of pharmaceutical companies, then the reality will be the opposite,” Dr Parnis said.

Dr Gleeson and her colleagues warned that not only are carve-outs for Australia in the agreement still up for negotiation, but are they limited to specific areas such as the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, the Medicare Benefits Scheme, the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.

They said the very broad definition of investments used in the TPP could well leave the Commonwealth exposed to the sort of legal action launched by major tobacco companies against the country’s ground-breaking plain packaging laws.

The experts said a safeguard in the draft chapter to protect actions taken by governments to protect public health and safety included a loophole of a kind that was already being used by US investors in a case against a national park in Costa Rica.

“The problems and loopholes characterising the latest leaked TPP draft throw doubt on the Government’s claims that it’s taking the concerns of health stakeholders as seriously as the interests of big transnationals,” Dr Gleeson and her co-authors said. “They highlight exactly why it’s vital for the draft text to be made public and subjected to independent scrutiny before it is signed.”

Adrian Rollins

Published: 05 May 2015