Congressmen Seek Higher Public Health Profile in Trade Negotiations

The United States has signed and is currently negotiating trade agreements that could provide a basis for altering domestic public health policies, including workplace safety and health, according to the Center for Policy Analysis on Trade and Health (CPATH).

Yet, according to a report by the Government Accounting Office (GAO), the agencies and committees responsible for negotiating these trade treaties have virtually no representation from the public health community.

Three congressmen, Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Pete Stark, D-Calif., want that to change. In an Oct. 7 letter to Rob Portman, the U.S. trade representative (USTR), the lawmakers call for an assistant USTR for public health, with appropriate staffing, and they also are requesting more public health representatives on the administration's trade advisory committees.

Telephone calls to the USTR office seeking comment on the letter were not returned.

"Congress has consistently directed the administration to negotiate trade policies that protect public health, including access to affordable prescription drugs and health care services," wrote the congressmen. "However, our current system shuts out the very voices that would ensure the realization of those goals."

Congress has passed laws requiring balanced representation on trade advisory committees. The pharmaceutical, tobacco, alcohol, food processing and health insurance industries have many representatives on these panels, CPATH says.

According to the three lawmakers, there currently is an assistant USTR for pharmaceutical policy that advocates on behalf of the prescription drug companies when issues arise affecting their industry.

Yet a 2002 report by the Government Accounting Office found that "new stakeholders in the trade process, such as public health…have limited or no participation in the formal committee system."

While the letter from the three congressmen did not specifically mention workplace safety and health, CPATH Director Ellen Shaffer said it is an important part of the public health agenda.

"How people's health is protected or not in the workplace is a very significant dimension of public health," Shaffer said in an interview.

Shaffer added that CPATH is working with the occupational safety and health section of the American Public Health Association in pursuit of greater representation in the negotiation of trade agreements.

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