Changing of the Big Pharma guard

Drug company political hacks beware: There's a new sheriff in town.

Andrew Leonard
November 13, 2006 10:45PM (UTC)

On Oct. 13, Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Henry Waxman sent a letter to Michael Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, demanding more information about an attempt by an HHS undersecretary, William Steiger, to squash a World Health Organization report that criticized the impact of U.S. trade policy on public health in developing countries.

Attempting to suppress a report because it is critical of U.S. trade policy is unacceptable. Instead, the United States should seriously assess the impact of our trade policies on access to medicines and public health.

We request that you forward to our offices any additional letters or communications sent by Mr. Steiger or other members of the Administration requesting that a World Health Organization publication, official, or representative be recalled for criticizing U.S. policies. Specifically, we request that these include copies of the past correspondence described by Mr. Steiger and the further correspondence mentioned by Mr. Steiger when he wrote, "I intend to address these specific issues in a subsequent letter to you."

We also ask that you cooperate fully with the Government Accountability Office as it responds to our request last week for an investigation into the effect of the U.S. Trade Representative's activities on public health. Specifically, we have asked GAO to assess whether the formal and informal mechanisms of U.S. trade policy conform to the Congressional directive to respect the Doha commitment to public health.

Before Nov. 7, such a letter, despite its formidable-sounding rhetoric, did not constitute news. As members of the minority party in both the House and Senate, Kennedy and Waxman could grandstand, but they could not force Michael Leavitt to do anything he didn't want to do. But come January, Kennedy will chair the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Waxman will chair the House Committee on Government Reform. They will have power. If Michael Leavitt declines to turn over Steiger's correspondence, they can subpoena it.


Kennedy and Waxman may have bigger fish to fry than pursuing the partisan hackery of Steiger, George H.W. Bush's godson, when the new Congress convenes in January. But How the World Works will follow this closely. Advocates for free trade have been bewailing the Democratic takeover of Congress, distraught at the fearsome prospects of "economic nationalism" and protectionism. Usually, they fail to mention that enthusiasm for free trade, as it is practiced by the United States, has declined worldwide, in part because of how blatantly U.S. policy reflects U.S. corporate interests. The way trade agreements are crafted to serve the purposes of the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of public health in developing nations has long been Exhibit A for demonstrating how the current system is screwed up.

It is possible to demand changes in trade policy without being protectionist or nationalist. Cracking down on water carriers for Big Pharma, like William Steiger, is one way to do that. If only for this reason alone, ethically conscientious free traders should be applauding the new political paradigm, not denouncing it.

(News of the Oct. 13 letter came by way of a comprehensive piece updating the Steiger controversy by IP-Watch's always excellent Tove Iren S. Gerhardsen, who got her hands on an internal WHO memo criticizing WHO's response to the Steiger letter.)

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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