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How the TPP Trade Deal Could Increase Risk of Dying of Breast Cancer

On the surface, the fear and urgency of a new breast cancer diagnosis seems far removed from a huge international trade deal. And yet, as the executive director of Breast Cancer Action, I am acutely aware of how the highly contested Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) threatens the health and well-being of women.

We must take a stand and demand public health comes before corporate profit. We must stand against the TPP which blatantly and unapologetically shifts power away from people and toward corporations.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Although negotiations between the world's biggest economic players can feel disconnected and distant from the day-to-day issues of women living with or at risk of breast cancer, the truth is these massive multinational trade deals play out in ways that directly impact all of us. These impacts include restricting access to affordable cancer treatments and increasing our exposure to chemicals that increase our risk of cancer.

The TPP is a sweeping free trade deal negotiated in secret by the U.S. and 11 other Asian and European countries, with the “help" of more than 600 corporate advisors, including institutions and corporations that produce policies or products linked to breast cancer, like the American Chemistry Council, Avon and Chevron. Yet, while these multibillion dollar giants have a seat at the table, the public is forced to rely only on leaked snippets of information about the trade deal that will impact many aspects of our lives—and bodies.

And as if the secretive and back room deal politicking isn't bad enough, President Obama has asked Congress to give him authority to quickly pass, or “fast-track," the deal. Yesterday the Senate said "no" to moving forward with Fast Track—and we must keep the pressure on.

As the head of a watchdog organization for the breast cancer movement, I work to ensure that public health and patient interests come before those of big business—and I say no way to secret trade deals that harm our health and well-being, especially when we have no say in the matter. I am outraged that information revealed so far about the TPP shows that while it will be great for multinational corporations, it would be, as is too often the case, terrible for our health.

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The TPP both threatens access to affordable treatments and limits regulation that protects the public from toxic exposures and processes. This means that not only will more people be exposed to chemicals that are known and suspected to cause health harm, but the treatments for these medical problems will be more expensive as a result of the TPP.

Cost of treatment for breast cancer (and other) patients is a critical issue in the U.S. Too many women already experience first-hand the exorbitant cost of cancer drugs in the U.S.: 11 out of the 12 cancer drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2012 cost more than $100,000 per year. The current U.S. patent system is designed to reward drug companies for introducing new treatments by providing them with a period of exclusivity, during which no other drug company can sell a competing or generic version of that drug.

The Obama administration once acknowledged that an important step in making cancer treatments more affordable is by limiting this period of exclusivity so that generic options can come onto the market more quickly and provide cancer patients with affordable treatments options. Despite this, the administration is reportedly pushing for market exclusivity periods to last 12 years.

According to language in the TPP's leaked intellectual property chapter, the trade deal would require all participating countries to enact automatic market exclusivity periods on many essential medical drugs, including biological therapies used to treat cancer. In this way, no country would be able to take action within their borders to bring down the cost of treatment by reforming the patent system or reducing the period of exclusivity. It could also limit the U.S. government from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices and better reimbursements for patients requiring Medicaid and Medicare. And it would spell disaster for developing countries signing on to the deal.

By locking all 12 nations into patents with long exclusivity periods, the TPP removes any chance for participating countries to take action to reduce the cost of breast cancer and other medical treatments. The TPP would limit access to life-saving treatment by keeping drug prices high—and out of reach of too many patients. This is unacceptable and wrong.

The TPP will include an “Investor-State Dispute Settlement" (ISDS) provision, which allows international investors—mainly multinational corporations—to sue a country if its laws interfere with their profits. Corporations are able to bypass domestic courts and go before an international tribunal of private lawyers, who can, in turn, force nations to pay compensation or “reparation" to corporations—sometimes handing over millions in taxpayer dollars. While ISDS is a provision in many international trade agreements, the TPP expands the current reach of ISDS to thousands of corporations in the twelve countries signing on to the trade deal.

Currently, the nation's fifth-largest pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly, is using an ISDS to challenge Canada's drug approval process. After finding that one of Eli Lilly's drugs was not effective, Canada invalidated one of its drug patents. In response, Ely Lilly is attempting to use the ISDS provision under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to sue Canada for $500 million. The TPP threatens to expand the power of pharmaceutical corporations like Eli Lilly to set and maintain high drug costs—and high profits at the expense of patient well-being.

Not only do the TPP and its ISDS provision threaten to keep the costs of breast cancer treatments high, this trade deal will also erode efforts to stop cancer before it starts—meaning more and more people may need these exorbitantly expensive cancer treatments.

Health activists, environmental justice activists, and healthcare professionals have long sought strong chemical policy reform in the U.S. to limits exposures to toxic chemicals—some of which have been linked to breast cancer—in consumer, personal care, and household products. While we have a long way to go to strengthen the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) and other chemical regulatory policies, the TPP would enable countries importing goods to the U.S. to bypass our existing chemical safety regulations. As a result of ISDS, countries signing on to the TPP won't be held to U.S. standards for chemical safety when importing their goods here.

Similarly, activists across the country have been fighting for both local and national bans on fracking, a process using many chemicals linked to breast cancer and other health harms. But because of ISDS, foreign oil and gas corporations could sue the U.S. if they assert that our fracking bans interfere with their profit – thus undermining the important work the anti-fracking movement is doing in the U.S. to limit its toxic impact.

We must take a stand and demand public health comes before corporate profit. We must stand against the TPP which blatantly and unapologetically shifts power away from people and toward corporations. Not only would the TPP block vital work to reduce toxic exposures that increase our risk of breast cancer in the first place, the TPP threatens access to affordable and effective treatments for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.

Now is the time to tell our Congressional representatives: Don't trade away our health.

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