Ron Labonté, a professor of public health at the University of Ottawa, has become one of the world’s leading experts on the health impacts of international trade agreements and globalization.
He and his colleagues have just published a study in the International Journal of Health Policy and Management of some of the likely health impacts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a new trade agreement that Canada has signed. This document, 6,000 pages long, is the world’s largest free-trade agreement.
They note it “will have consequences for decades to come, as well as setting a precedent for future ‘21st century’ agreements.” Troublingly, they conclude that “most of the concerns of the public-health community raised during the negotiation process have not been addressed in the final TPP text.”
The first problem is that it has been negotiated in secret, at least as far as you and I are concerned. One of the key messages of their study is that the “public was denied access to the draft texts during negotiations, despite abundant input from the private sector throughout the deal.” But if the TPP and similar trade agreements are in the interests of the public, why exclude the public?
That does not pass the smell test, especially when you learn that companies such as DuPont, Cargill and Dow Agro-Sciences — all major players in the global agri-food sector — “acted as private corporate advisers to the United States during negotiations.” But where were the NGOs that, time and again, have fought to protect the health of Canadians and others around the world? One is left with the distinct impression that the TPP was negotiated largely in the interests of large corporations, not the public.
That impression is strengthened when one gets into the details of the TPP, now that the text is (finally) available to the public. Labonté and his colleagues raise concerns about the negative impact of the deal on several fronts: pharmaceutical prices and marketing, regulation of food safety, the application of the precautionary principle (which states one does not need absolute certainty before acting to protect health), increasing the potential role of the private sector in health-related policy and increasing the administrative burdens on governments.
These latter points will make regulation of corporate activities more difficult, especially for middle-income countries that have less capacity to address them. In addition, countries might feel vulnerable to being sued for compensation by investors with deep pockets who think their interests have been harmed by government regulation. This results in “regulatory chill,” as governments “become more reluctant to enact new policy for fear of being sued.”
One of the most obvious examples of such potential actions is the tobacco industry. The good news is that — thanks to strong public-health lobbying — the TPP explicitly allows governments to “exclude tobacco control measures from an investment dispute.”
However, Labonté and his colleagues point out that this does not “prevent health regulations related to food, alcohol or other health-harmful products from being challenged by investors.” Nor does it stop the tobacco industry from using other investment treaties to end-run the TPP exclusion.
As to the potential health benefits of the TPP, these mostly relate to “trickle down health” from economic growth and employment. But recent studies of the TPP’s economic impacts find very “limited aggregate welfare gains” accompanied by net employment losses, which makes one wonder: What is the point?
We need to ask ourselves whom we trust most to protect the health, safety and environmental quality of ourselves and our families — the governments that are, to a large extent, in bed with or at least markedly influenced by large corporations, or NGOs and professional organizations dedicated to protecting health and the environment.
So let’s take our time, and have a full, open and public process of review and analysis of the TPP, with enough time for the experts who were excluded from the negotiations — the NGOs and academics who have the interests of the public in mind — to take a long, hard look at it. We need them to do this for us before we commit ourselves and others around the world to a potentially health-damaging agreement that has little social benefit.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.