How trade affects public health

Modern trade deals are about much more than tariffs. They cover the rules and regulations that affect pretty much every aspect of our lives: the NHS, the food we eat, the makeup we wear, the environment we rely on, and the medicines we need. This means they are a huge risk to public health.

Here are just a few examples of the ways that trade deals affect public health:

Privatisation: Trade deals often include provisions to progressively open public services to the private sector. But whilst in the past countries decided which services they wanted to liberalise (called a positive list system), now countries are being asked to say which services they don’t want to liberalise (called a negative list). This means that the default position is towards marketisation, and makes it harder for countries to oppose privatisation. What’s more, these trade deals include ‘ratchet’ and ‘standstill’ clauses, which lock-in existing levels of privatisation. And to make matters worse, if countries do try to take services back into public hands, they run the risk of being sued by corporations in private courts.

Access to medicines: Around the world, billions of people can’t access medicines because prices are too high. This is in part because patent laws stop countries or companies producing cheaper generic drugs. Whilst this used to be seen as an issue that affected the global south, it increasingly affects patients in the UK too, as the NHS can’t afford drugs people need. But rather than make it easier for countries to produce generics, countries like the UK and US want to extend the patent term – so companies get monopoly rights for longer – and make it easier to get patents for small changes to drugs. So if a company changes a medicine from one dose a day to four, it could get a new patent, even if there is no new invention or drug. This will make it even harder for most people – but particularly the poor – to access the medicines they need.

Public health: Trade deals can affect the food we eat. Many countries have seen an increase in obesity and diabetes after signing trade deals because they get flooded with cheap, unhealthy food that is calorie-rich and nutrient poor. But trade deals can also alter the regulations that affect how food is produced. So if we sign a trade deal with the US we might have to accept chlorine-washed chicken or GM crops. This could have an impact on human, animal and environmental health.

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