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June 17th, 2015:

Leaked Trade Deal Terms Prompt Fears for Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme

11 June 2015

Gabrielle Chan

The leak of new information on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) shows the mega-trade deal could provide more ways for multinational corporations to influence Australia’s control of its pharmaceutical regulations.

Revealed via Wikileaks, the annexe on “transparency and procedural fairness for pharmaceutical products and medical devices” uncovered the draft agreements regarding medicines between the 12 TPPA member countries.

The leak comes as US Republican leaders announced a vote on Friday that may provide Barack Obama a fast-track authority to complete the agreement with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The countries represent 40% of the world’s economy.

The leaked text, dated December 2014, laid out the draft rules for member countries regarding medicines under national health care programs, in Australia’s case, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). The TPP has yet to be signed off.

The Abbott government has argued the trade deal will provide access for Australian products to other markets. But it requires Australia to trade off regulations that stop access by other countries and particularly multinational companies to the Australian market.

Critics have suggested the deal, which is likely to include Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clauses, will allow big corporations to sue Australian governments. Philip Morris International is currently challenging the former Labor government’s tobacco plain packaging laws under a Hong Kong trade treaty ISDS.

Trade experts leaped on the rare information release regarding the secret but wide-ranging trade deal. Deborah Gleeson, a lecturer at the school of psychology and public health at La Trobe University, said the inclusion of an annexe on health “serves no useful public interest purpose”.

“It sets a terrible precedent for using regional trade deals to tamper with other countries’ health systems and could circumscribe the options available to developing countries seeking to introduce pharmaceutical coverage programs in future,” Gleeson said.

Jane Kelsey of the faculty of law of the University of Auckland described the annexe as one of the most controversial parts of the TPP in her analysis. She said the US pharmaceutical industry was using the trade agreement to target New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency (Pharmac), equivalent to the PBS.

“This ‘transparency’ annexe seeks to erode the processes and decisions of agencies that decide which medicines and medical devices to subsidise the public money and by how much,” Kelsey said.

“This leaked text shows the TPP will severely erode Pharmac’s ability to continue to deliver affordable medicines and medical devices as it has for the past two decades.

“That will mean fewer medicines are subsidised, or people will pay more as co-payments or more of the health budget will go to pay for medicines instead of other activities or the health budget will have to expand beyond the cap.

“Whatever the outcome, the big global pharmaceutical companies will win and the poorest and most vulnerable New Zealanders will lose.”

AMA president Brian Owler said while doctors were very concerned at the possible effects on Australia’s healthcare systems, they were constantly dismissed by the trade minister Andrew Robb.

“When we have raised concerns about the effects on health, the only response is ‘we are not going to undermine the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme’,” said Owler.

“We are worried about the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism and there are issues in terms of patents that would affect pharmaceutical prices.

“The problem is our concerns have been dismissed by the trade minister but we do not know what is in the text.”

However, Robb said on Thursday that the government would not accept anything that would adversely affect the PBS, the health system more generally, or increase the price of medicines for Australians.

“It’s perhaps time to look at the enormous benefits that will flow from a more seamless trade and investment environment across 12 countries representing 40 per cent of global GDP,” Robb said.

“New levels of market access and common sets of trading rules will help support growth, create new jobs and result in higher living standards.”

Parliamentarians were offered the chance to see the TPP draft by Robb if they agreed to a four year non-disclosure agreement.

A cross-party parliamentary working group has formed, including Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, Labor MP Melissa Parke and independent senator Nick Xenophon.

Whish-Wilson, who has not seen the draft as he refused to agree to the terms of the agreement, said the latest leak suggested the Australian PBS could be undermined.

“These negotiations are happening behind closed doors, without the scrutiny of the parliament,” he said.

“At the very least, the Australian people deserve to be reassured that the government won’t allow any deal which drives up the public health costs for Australian taxpayers such as further subsidising important new medicines including biologics.”

During the most recent senate estimates in the past fortnight, Whish-Wilson questioned officials from the department of foreign affairs and trade about the strategic importance of the TPP to the United States.

The secretary of Dfat, Peter Varghese, said the whole purpose was to indicate a “ramped up US presence in Asia”.

“The conclusion of the TPP is important to the United States in terms of its re-balance, because it is an important step in relation to the economic engagement of the United States with the region, and the whole purpose of the re-balance was to indicate a ramped up US presence in Asia, and a recognition of the importance of Asia in broader US geostrategic thinking,” Varghese said.

“We in Australia have never seen the TPP as an instrument for locking anybody out— in fact, quite the contrary.”

The trade minister’s office was contacted for comment.

Phoenix TV host gets suspended jail term for smuggling

Jun 16, 2015

A television host with Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV has been given a suspended jail sentence and fined HK$5,500 (US$709) for cigarette smuggling.

Ma Bin, a former presenter with state broadcaster CCTV, admitted to two counts of smuggling-related offenses — possession of dutiable commodities and failure to declare them to customs authorities.

Principal Magistrate Bernadette Woo Huey-fang scolded Ma, saying that as a representative of China, he should be careful about his words and behavior and should set a good example, before sentencing him to a month’s imprisonment suspended for one year.

Ma, 42, was held by Hong Kong customs authorities on June 4 while trying to smuggle 405 cigarettes from mainland China.

The cigarettes were subject to a HK$772 tax, according to Apple Daily.

Ma hid them in a toy box and told customs officers he had no room for them in his luggage when the items were discovered, TVB News reported.

Ma’s lawyer, Chan Ka-wing, had argued Ma merely forgot to pay the tax because he used the customs green channel, which is for people who have nothing to declare.

OPINION: If we knew what was in the TTIP deal, would we vote for it?

IT’S not very often that a deal is proposed that has bi-partisan support in both the for and against camps. The controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP deal, is something with bi-partisan support on the European Parliament and in the US Senate. Indeed, in the USA, it has Republican Party members agreeing with Democrat President Obama, for perhaps the first time in about three years. But it also has a bi-partisan opposition. In Europe, MEP’s from a variety of left and right leaning parties deliberately disrupted and eventually cancelled a vote on the topic last week. In the USA, Democrats are lining up to criticise Obama’s proposed deal, and others like it, and have so far managed to hinder its progress through the US democratic system. But while the deal has caused a wide variety of political confusion and a big argument in activist circles, its questionable how much the general public is aware of the deal, or what is proposed within it. That awareness might be by design. Negotiations have been held in secret, with US Senators having previously complained that secrecy control means they have to be supervised when reading passages of the bill. Although bits and pieces throughout its debating period have been leaked by WikiLeaks, and the mainstream media has recently upped articles on it, the sense is that the public is not entirely aware of what is being discussed.

In many cases, the noises surrounding TTIP have preceded the content of the actual deal, and what is being discussed. So what is the TTIP deal aiming to achieve, and what is in it that has people riled? In recent years, the United States has been attempting to bring the world’s trade agreements to its playing fields. This has been spotted with a similar deal involving China and Japan known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which is the deal that has been attracting major attention in the US. A similar deal already discussed and signed covers South and Central America, while another deal, known as TISA, is also in negotiation to rubber-stamp all these individual deals into a global framework. The publicly spouted theory by proponents is that these deals are intended to loosen trading regulations for corporations and big businesses in a variety of global sectors. The thinking behind is an increase in jobs, economic boosts, and a GDP increase. But critics are not entirely buying that line, and there’s a lot of them. Nearly three million people across the EU have signed a petition trying to block the deal, while noted politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are opposed. Indeed, behind last week’s delay to the EU votes were MEP’s from UKIP, while politicians from left-wing European parties have also been involved in the disruption process.

The biggest red-flag for those opposed is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement clause, or ISDS. This clause is intended to allow investors and businesses to file lawsuits against countries if they feel legislation by sovereign states has impacted their profits, but goes further, with some critics claiming this rendition of ISDS means the state has to stomach the costs regardless, and corporate lawyers in the pay-pocket of big companies can make the rulings.

Trade agreements elsewhere means companies can sue countries anyway. The famous example is that of Phillip Morris International, who own the Marlboro tobacco brand, sued Australia in 2011 in response to Australia’s move to put all cigarettes in plain packaging. A court ruled Australia won and PMI had to be pay costs, but the company is carrying on, with the corporation currently in a legal battle with the government of Uruguay after they tried to put health warnings on packets for the first time.

The Uruguay case is widely seen as a test case for ISDS, with the tobacco industry’s lawsuit coming through a trade deal between Switzerland – where PMI are based – and Uruguay that includes such a clause. As pointed out by satirist John Oliver back in February, a similar threat of action has also been used to dissuade the small African nation of Togo from putting warnings on cigarette packets altogether.

Last year, the British government insisted ISDS was necessary to convince foreign investors to invest in Britain. Exactly who they’re trying to convince with such a statement remains a mystery, and not one we seem any nearer to knowing. The only thing that remains known is David Cameron remains for it, although as Labour were as well ahead of the election, there wasn’t really much choice from the two main parties on it. But while that’s a problem, it’s not the only one. The multiple layers of secrecy are extremely disconcerting, and this has allowed speculation to take over the debate. But leaked pages of the TPP deal sourced and uploaded by WikiLeaks revealed most of the discussions did not involve trade, even though this is advertised as the key component of the entire thing.

Another big red flag is that there is a lot of regulation weakening involved. Proponents have denied this, and it could be useful if such a deal was designed to help bring the USA up to stronger regulations on things like food safety, financial regulation and the environment. The fear however is the reverse, and that instead, regulation is being weakened. The particular fear is environmental regulation, with leaked pages suggesting it will be left weaker by these deals.

All of which begs the question – why is the world’s general public being shut out?

These deals affect everybody on Earth, and include changes to global legislation that will affect everything from environmental regulation to food safety, the availability of public health, financial regulations and the question of the relationship between big multi-nationals and sovereign nations. Yet all of the negotiations have been conducted behind closed doors, and were it not for leaking data through WikiLeaks or activist groups like 38Degrees, the chances are we might not have known anything at all. It’s one thing to ask MEP’s, Senators, Representatives, MP’s, everyone for their input into the deal to voice the views of the people, but why is it that the political class – including those with corporate sponsors and lobbyists – are calling the shots? A deal with such global ramifications for the next decades should be given more public input, more public exposure, and a chance for people across the planet to be given a greater say in its direction. After all, the wrong deal leaves the public exposed to the ramifications. In one respect, it is perhaps a sign of the times that people do not trust politicians with what’s going on that a greater interest has been taking in this than most of the other activities undertaken by the European Parliament. But a lot has to be done to bring increasingly irritated people on side, otherwise the deal will either be derailed or go through in a botched format.