01/11/2006 08:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Making enemies - the US/Thai FTA negotiations are bitter medicine

It would be nice if US citizens had more information about US foreign policy. If they did, they might understand why so many people hate us.

This week US trade officials are meeting with Thai negotiators in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to hammer out details of a still secret deal between the US and Thailand on what is inaccurately called a "Free Trade Agreement," or FTA.

One of the main events will be a presentation by the US of its demands for the intellectual property (IP) chapter of the agreement. The FTA covers many issues, including arcane details of tariffs and other "market access" measures. But the primary US objective in most of these FTAs is to set global norms for the protection of intellectual property.

In Thailand, like everywhere else, the US government doesn't really negotiate the IP rules, it just announces the changes a country will have to make in its laws. The message is simple: no IP chapter = no "market access" agreement.

Even though the negotiations are secret, the people in Thailand already have a pretty good idea what the US will demand -- policies that will raise the prices of medicines. This is what the US has already achieved in a string of similar agreements (Jordan 2000, Chile 2003, Singapore 2003, Australia 2004, Bahrain 2004, CAFTA 2004, Morocco 2004 and Peru 2005).

The details of these policies can be complex, but they are all aimed at blocking generic competition and reducing the effectiveness of government negotiations over drug prices. One such measure would require generic drug companies to conduct their own clinic tests of the safety and efficacy of new drugs -- something that is time-consuming, costly and unethical. The US is also demanding extensions of pharmaceutical patent terms beyond 20 years, procedures that make it easier for foreign companies to obtain patents on medicines, and obligations for linking patents (even those of dubious validity or relevance) to drug registration. Some but not all of these measures are part of US law now.

Some seek to justify such policies on the grounds that they are necessary to get other countries to share in the costs of R&D. But many people are now proposing a better way -- global agreements that focus on R&D rather than high drug prices, and which recognize both innovation and access as important policy goals. (See here, here or here). Until now, however, the United States government has unfortunately opposed such approaches, stating in October 2003 that the World Health Organization "should not be engaged in considering amendment to existing international legal or trade instruments or new instruments such as an international research and development (R&D) treaty." The Bush administration is being asked to change its mind this year. The WHO is expected to debate these new approaches in May of 2006.

In 2004, Thailand had a per capita income of $2,540, compared to $41,400 for the United States. With a per capita income that is 94 percent lower than the United States, it is not surprising that efforts to raise prices for medicine are not popular in Thailand.

This week there are big demonstrations about the proposed US/Thai FTA in Chiang Mai. On Monday about eight thousand demonstrators took the streets with colorful signs and costumes. On Tuesday some of the demonstrators were beaten and arrested. This attracts a lot of attention in South Eastern Asia. Few American citizens have a clue what is going on.

Maybe people in the US don't care what our government does in Thailand and other countries, and maybe if they did they would agree that raising drug prices worldwide is a good way to advertise our superior political and cultural values and maintain our high standard of living. But I doubt it.

If successful, the US proposals will kill people, and not for the first time.

In 1993, the Clinton Administration obtained an agreement with Thailand that created barriers to the use of generic medicines and gutted national price controls on patented medicines. Because of the 1993 agreement, Thailand was very slow to provide effective treatments for AIDS patients, and high prices for drugs (like fluconazole) made it impossible to treat many severe illnesses (such as cryptococcal meningitis). Some of these problems have been overcome. But now we are repeating an ugly period of US trade policy.

When you wonder why people hate the United States, think about the Thai FTA. Better yet, do something to stop our government from doing something that will cause so much lasting harm -- to the Thai people, and to our honor.
Link to Thai FTA Watch January 9, 2006. International NGO Solidarity Statement Signed by 41 Organizations. Here are some photos taken in Chiang Mai on Tuesday: