John Menadue. Triple-dipping by Big Pharma.

Jun 25, 2015

Current Affairs

The major pharmaceutical companies in Australia, almost all foreign owned, keep pushing their luck at the expense of Australian consumers and taxpayers.

In my series on health reform, I pointed to a minimum of $2 b. p.a. that we could save in drug costs if we had a government purchasing system like the New Zealanders. In the last budget the Minister for Health made a few changes around the edges but the high prices charged by Big Pharma will continue.

It is the same story around the world. Many American consumers find it worthwhile to cross into Canada to buy pharmaceuticals.

It is no surprise to know that Big Pharma is also highly influential in the secret negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It is quite a scandal that we are kept in the dark on a trade arrangement which could have quite serious consequences for Australia.

Apart from the secrecy there are major concerns. As Choice Magazine has pointed out ‘The leaked chapters of the TPP indicate that the agreement may contain an investor-state dispute settlement clause(ISDS), which allows foreign corporations to sue Australia’s government for loss of future profits.’ Dr Matthew Rimmer, Associate Professor at the ANU College of Law, has said ‘Australian consumers have been betrayed. The intellectual property chapter of the TPP is a monster. The proposals in respect of copyright law, trademark law, patent law and data-protection would hit Australian consumers hard’.

There is major concern that the Australian government could become more vulnerable to law suits from multinational companies and particularly, Big Pharma. As Choice has pointed out, after the introduction of tobacco plain packaging rules in Australia, cigarette companies unsuccessfully challenged the new laws twice in the High Court and lost. Philip Morris then announced its decision to challenge plain packaging again, this time under international law by invoking a 1993 bilateral investment treatment that included ISDS provisions between Australia and Hong Kong.

And we know from experience, that US corporations have massively disproportionate lawyering power compared to our legal defence resources in Australia.

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, told us recently on the ABC about the benefits to the drug companies of TPP. He said ‘I talked to all the other trade negotiators involved in the drug provisions [of the TPP] and we know that the US is negotiating for a position that would make it much more difficult to get access to generic medicines and that would drive up drug prices.

Then there is the problem of tax avoidance. The Australian Parliamentary Library told a recent Senate Committee that in total the top five pharmaceutical suppliers to the PBS in Australia received $2.8 b. in public money. Their total Australian sales were $4.8 b. But research found their combined profits were only $50 m. They paid $53 m. in tax between them, or roughly one cent in tax for every dollar earned in Australia. For a full report by the SMH for June 15, see link here.

We are really in triple-dipping country here – high prices for Australian consumers, attempts through TPP to weaken Australia’s bargaining position and widespread tax avoidance.

I think we are being taken for a ride.

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