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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Anti-GATT and Canada’s Drug Pricing

Ottawa — Another example of how the proposed international trade agreements, that are heading for the parliaments of over 100 countries next year will operate, unfurled itself recently in this neat capital city of Canada. Prime Minister Mulroney is pushing a bill through Parliament that would end the country’s unique system of compulsory licensing of pharmaceuticals that has kept Canadian medicines far cheaper than their exact counterparts in the U.S. With the drug industry pouring money into politicians campaign coffers and medical schools around the country, Mulroney asserts that extending the patent monopolies for new drugs to 20 years (similar to the U.S.) will raise drug prices, to be sure, but will also bring more drug company research and development investment.

When pressed to explain why $15 in higher drug prices is needed to bring in $1 in research investment, the Prime Minister’s colleagues resort to saying that the drug patent bill is required because of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the larger proposed, GATT agreement revisions with 106 countries.

When pressed to justify how the government can give the drug companies long-term monopoly rights to sell their drugs without competition from generic drug companies, the ruling party says they have to “harmonize” Canadian laws with international norms.

Welcome to the future folks and not just in Canada. If our Congress and the President approve the GATT and NAFTA agreements, all types of higher health, safety and workplace standards can be pulled downward to lower country conditions elsewhere. The reason: multinational corporate lobbyists are writing many of the provisions in these huge volume-sized trade agreements under a section known as “technical barriers to trade.”

Never mind that extending drug patent monopolies appears to conflict with the free trade label that advocates of GATT and NAFTA like to parade. They prefer to use the term “protection of intellectual property.” Tell that to millions of families who can’t afford the outrageous prices of many of these drugs even though taxpayers paid to develop more than a few of them and paid again through large tax breaks given the drug companies.

Already, Canada is using the 1988 U.S. Canada trade agreement by challenging our nation’s phased ban on asbestos as a violation of the agreement. Why banning asbestos, claim the Canadians, is a technical barrier to trade keeping out Canadian asbestos, instead of a major life-saving policy.

On our side of the border, companies are saying Canada is violating the same trade agreement because they are giving tax incentives to polluters to reduce acid rain.

If the revised GATT becomes the law, our food safety standards will be vulnerable to weaker GATT food standards for pesticide residues. Companies in countries with weaker food regulations can get their governments to demand that we bring down our standards or some GATT tribunal in Geneva, Switzerland can decide the U.S. is violating GATT and subject to retaliation.

In short, the legitimate exercise of sovereignty to determine our own worker, consumer and environmental conditions can be overridden by these foreign trade agreements. For if they are approved by Washington, they have the status of federal law. A GATT or NAFTA autocracy is placed over our sovereignty.

Global corporations naturally want to drive down their labor costs, their consumer and environmental compliance expenses. So they make sure these trade agreements contain provisions that exercise a “pull down” pressure on nations with higher standards. Interestingly, there is no “pull up” pressure, such as determining that a nation with too weak environmental or workplace or consumer standards is violating GATT or NAFTA. It is all “harmonization” downward.

So, good citizens, send for a free citizen information and action kit on these trade agreements by writing to Trade Watch, P. 0. Box 19404, Washington, DC 20036. You’ve got about five months to make your voice heard in Washington.