This opinion was originally published in the National Times September 15, 2011.
Australia is negotiating two regional trade agreements; agreements that have far-reaching implications for health and human rights as well as for economics and commerce. These risks are not being given sufficient priority in the negotiations.
Australia is recognised as a world leader in public health. Our tobacco control, road safety and HIV/AIDS campaigns have received international recognition. The Gillard government's refusal to back down on its tobacco plain packaging proposal despite threats from the tobacco industry shows that we are capable of taking courageous steps to protect the health of our population.
However, if the impact on health is not considered in these trade negotiations it could undermine our efforts to improve health in Australia and in the Asia Pacific region.
Negotiations are taking place in Chicago this week for the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. This free trade agreement involves Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US, and Vietnam.
The Australian government sees the Trans Pacific Partnership as an opportunity to promote economic integration and achieve better access to markets for Australian exports but the negotiating agenda is largely driven by the US, responding to the interests of large US corporations.
For example, the US has proposed provisions that would extend monopoly rights of pharmaceutical companies; would remove safeguards that allow patent applications to be challenged before they are granted; would allow patents to be granted for minor variations to existing drugs; and would provide extra rights for pharmaceutical companies in court.
Pharmaceutical companies are also lobbying for further restrictions on the use of clinical trial data by the manufacturers of generic medicines seeking to registertheir generic versions.
If adopted, these provisions would raise the cost of medicines for governments and for the public. This would affect Australia's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and it would have a devastating impact on access to affordable medicines in countries such as Vietnam where prices are already high and many people do not have access to essential medicines.
The US is also seeking investment provisions in the TPP agreement that would expose governments to legal action by foreign companies if governments introduce policies (including policies to protect public health) that affect these companies' profits.
The Philip Morris cigarette company has filed a notice of claim against the Australian government over its tobacco plain packaging proposal, under investment protection provisions in an obscure investment treaty between Australia and Hong Kong. Philip Morris has lobbied the US government to include similar provisions in the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.
Whether the Philip Morris claim against Australia is successful or not, the battle will be costly. The inclusion of these investment protection provisions (including the right of companies to sue governments) in the Trans Pacific Partnership will deter other countries from introducing similar policies.
These round of negotiations concludes today but discussions about the more controversial elements of the TPP (including intellectual property rights and investment protection provisions) are likely to continue into the October and November rounds and beyond. The negotiations take place in secret and the outcomes will not be made publicly available until the agreement is finalised.
Australia's Trade Policy Statement released in April states that it will not accept provisions in this agreement that would affect the sustainability of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or that would grant foreign companies greater rights than domestic businesses to sue Australian governments. But it has made no commitments to ensuring the agreement also protects the health of our neighbours.
Our government's lack of regard for the health consequences of trade agreements on other countries in our region is also evident in its negotiations with the Pacific Island Forum countries for another proposed trade agreement known as PACER Plus. PACER Plus is intended to replace an earlier agreement, the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations.
We provide extensive development assistance in the Pacific islands, much of it directed to addressing "lifestyle diseases", such as diabetes and heart disease, that are swamping the Pacific. But we are attempting to negotiate a trade agreement that could undermine these efforts.
Tariff reductions, likely to be introduced under PACER Plus, could weaken the revenue base of Pacific island governments and reduce the funding available for health systems. Lower tariffs would also mean lower prices for unhealthy imported foods such as mutton flaps and soft drinks, and other health-damaging products including alcohol and tobacco.
Labour mobility provisions, which may also be included in PACER Plus, could increase the flow of health workers out of the Pacific islands to Australia and New Zealand, exacerbating existing health worker shortages in the Pacific. These risks must be addressed.
It is time for Australia to negotiate trade agreements that give a higher priority to health and human rights than to the rights of corporations.
Dr Deborah Gleeson and Associate Professor David Legge are researchers in the School of Public Health and Human Biosciences at La Trobe University.