Dr David Nabarro, WHO D-G candidate, on a sugar tax

The World Health Organisation may be in for interesting times if Dr David Nabarro becomes the next Director-General.

Only three candidates are now in the contest.  Two of them were Commissioners of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity: Dr Nabarro, from the UK, and Dr Sania Nishtar, from Pakistan (who was Co-Chair of the Commission).

The headline of the Commission’s final report was really the recommendation to governments to implement a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

However, according to Fairfax Press, Dr Nabarro has “stepped into the ring to slap down calls for sugar taxes, saying there is not enough evidence on what drives over-eating to justify blunt levies on the ingredient”.

However, Dr Nabarro’s comments raise interesting questions about the direction WHO could take under his leadership.  What role for fiscal interventions to address poor nutrition and diet-related diseases?

National Party  leader Barnaby Joyce has described a sugar tax as “bonkers mad”. (According to Mr Joyce, “bonkers mad” is also a condition shared by renewable energy targets).

According to Fairfax Press, Dr Nabarro cautioned against “blunt regulations” like a sugar tax and noted that the state should only intervene where the intervention has a proven effect in changing behavior.

Well that would depend on the rate of the tax. A growing body of research – examples here, and here – argues that dietary taxes could both raise revenue and improve health outcomes. In ways that subsidised gym memberships, education, personal responsibility and good intentions are unlikely to.

Mexico’s tax on sugary drinks has resulted in an even greater reduction in consumption of sugary drinks – a major source of added sugars in that country – in the second year of operation than in the first year: a 5.5% reduction in purchases of sugary drinks in 2014, rising to nearly 10% in 2015.

Dr Nabarro also distinguished between contagious epidemics, which engage the “pure health sector” and non-communicable diseases, which require inter-sectoral responses across a number of sectors.

The suggestion is that special caution is warranted with non-communicable diseases.

I’m not sure I take the point. Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, the world overwhelmingly dies from non-communicable diseases.

People are not less dead, and prior to death they are not less disabled because the condition crept up on them slowly, due to lifestyle factors that have multiple determinants.

So can we put this down to WHO politics, or is Dr Nabarro foreshadowing a softer line on “big food” and “big soda” if he is elected Director-General?

These are questions he may be asked when he is in Australia later this month.

By the way, in a recent report the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has estimated that 7% of the burden of disease in Australia is attributable to overweight and obesity (63% of which is fatal burden). Overweight and obesity are responsible for 53% of Australia’s diabetes burden, and 45% of the burden of osteoarthritis.

“Party like it’s payday!” urges Diageo Australia (before your welfare cheque runs out?)

It looks like Diageo Australia is at it again.

No, this time they’re not advertising Bundy Rum to a 3 year old.

Instead, they’re urging Western Australians to “Party like it’s payday” – hoisting ads for Captain Morgan Original Spiced Gold Rum around the Perth suburbs, including right outside a Centrelink office.

Whatever were they thinking?  Party like it’s payday – before your welfare cheque runs out?

Here’s Hannah Pierce, Research Officer at the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, Executive Officer of the Alcohol Advertising Review Board, and a Master of Health Law candidate at Sydney Law School.

Hannah’s blogpost is re-published with permission from Drink Tank.

Just when you thought the marketing techniques of alcohol companies couldn’t shock you any further, along comes an ad campaign that takes things to a whole new low.

Last month the Alcohol Advertising Review Board received a complaint about outdoor ads for Captain Morgan Original Spiced Gold Rum with the very prominent message, “Party like it’s payday”.

Understandably, the complainant was concerned about the tagline linking drinking and payday:

It makes me think of the people who spend their pay on alcohol and then don’t have much money left over for essentials like food and rent etc. There has been quite a lot of talk in the media of cashless welfare cards which can’t be used on alcohol or gambling so people use their money on food, clothing and bills. This is obviously a big problem in Australia, so it seems outrageous to have a very public alcohol advertising campaign that is actually promoting partying and buying alcohol around the payday theme.”

When notified of the complaint, Diageo Australia, the owner of Captain Morgan rum, declined to participate in the AARB process and confirmed their support for the self-regulatory system.

Given the sensitive issues the ad could raise, you’d think they’d be pretty careful where they put the ad, right?

Wrong.

The AARB received a second complaint about the ad, this time placed directly outside a Centrelink office on a Telstra payphone. The complainant said:

The sign says “Party like its Payday” conveniently out the front of Centrelink where people go to get their fortnightly welfare payment. This is highly insensitive considering Australia’s alcohol issues are highly prevalent amount those on welfare benefits […]”

Considering the substantial concerns about alcohol-related harms in Australia, including alcohol use among young people and vulnerable populations who are likely to visit Centrelink, the placement of this ad is blatantly inappropriate.

These complaints were reviewed and upheld by the AARB Panel. The Panel believed the tagline was irresponsible and encouraged excessive drinking, and that the ad attempts to establish that drinking Captain Morgan should take precedence over other activities, such as paying for accommodation and food.

The Alcohol Advertising Guidelines of the Outdoor Media Association (OMA), the peak national industry body that represents most of Australia’s outdoor media companies, note that its members “only accept copy for alcohol advertising that has been approved for display through the Alcohol Advertising Pre-vetting System”.

Evidently, the content of the Captain Morgan ad was actually approved by the self-regulatory system, highlighting serious concerns about its ability to ensure alcohol advertising is socially responsible.

In addition, the OMA has only one guideline relating to the placement of alcohol ads – that they cannot be placed within 150 metres of a school gate. Everywhere else is open slather.

So it appears neither the content of the “Party like it’s payday” rum ad nor its placement outside a Centrelink breach any codes in the self-regulatory system.

Despite this, the AARB has written to the OMA and Advertising Standards Bureau to seek their position on whether the content and placement of the Captain Morgan ad is consistent with the OMA’s commitment to “the responsible advertising of alcoholic beverages”.

The AARB has also written to Telstra to highlight our concerns about outdoor alcohol advertising and ask that they consider phasing out alcohol advertising on Telstra property, including pay phones.

The AARB was developed by the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth and Cancer Council WA in response to concerns about the effectiveness of alcohol advertising self-regulation in Australia.

This Captain Morgan ad is yet another example that highlights the need for this alternative complaint review system to support action on alcohol ads that the self-regulatory system deems acceptable.

If you see an alcohol ad that concerns you, we encourage you to submit a complaint to the AARB. Every complaint the AARB receives is further evidence of the need for strong, independent, legislated controls on alcohol advertising in Australia. Visit www.alcoholadreview.com.au and follow @AlcoholAdReview on Twitter to find out more.

Republished with permission from Drinktank.

Self-regulation of junk food advertising to kids doesn’t work. Here’s why.

junk-food-ads-kids

Recently, Cancer Council NSW published a study finding that food industry self-regulation in Australia has not been effective in reducing children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing. Australian children still see, on average, three advertisements for unhealthy foods and beverages during each hour of prime time television they watch. This figure remains unchanged despite the Australian food industry introducing two voluntary codes on food marketing to children in 2009.

My research, published recently in the Monash University Law Review, explains why.

I undertook an in-depth analysis of the terms and conditions of the two food industry codes on marketing to children. I also analyzed the processes of administration, monitoring, enforcement and review established by the self-regulatory scheme.

My analysis drew on the code documents themselves, monitoring reports from the food industry, existing independent research, and a sample of advertising complaint determinations from the Advertising Standards Board. I also considered the revisions made to the codes in 2014 (following an independent review of the scheme), and asked whether these revisions make the codes more likely to protect children from exposure to unhealthy food marketing.

My key finding is that the substantive terms and conditions of the codes contain a series of loopholes which leave food companies with a variety of techniques they can use to market unhealthy products to children. These loopholes include:

  • A weak definition of “media directed primarily to children” which excludes general audience programs that are popular with children
  • A weak definition of “advertising directed to children,” made weaker still by the Advertising Standards Board’s interpretive approach; and
  • The exclusion from the codes of key promotional techniques such as company-owned characters (e.g., Ronald McDonald), brand advertising, product line advertising, and product packaging and labelling.

The processes used to administer and enforce the codes also contain a series of flaws, undermining the codes’ efficacy, transparency and accountability. These include:

  • A lack of consultation with, or participation by, external stakeholders in the development of the codes, e.g., consumer or child representatives, government, or public health groups;
  • A lack of independent, systematic monitoring of the codes; and
  • The limited availability of enforcement mechanisms for non-compliance.

These loopholes and limitations help to explain why food industry self-regulation has not been effective in improving children’s food marketing environment. Further, the revisions to the codes made in 2014 appear to have done little to improve the self-regulatory scheme, and are unlikely to lead to lead to reductions in children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing.

My article sets out a “responsive” or step-wise approach for strengthening regulation of food marketing to children, by closing off the loopholes in the substantive terms and conditions of the codes, and strengthening regulatory processes, including monitoring and enforcement. Most importantly, I argue, regulation of food marketing to children needs strong government leadership and an approach to protecting children from unhealthy food marketing that doesn’t just rely on voluntary food industry action. There are a range of regulatory options available, even if government is unwilling to introduce new statutory controls on food marketing to children.

 

 

Dr Rodney Syme and Nembutal

rodneysyme_11a_good_death1

A Good Death

In the mid-1970s, a Melbourne urologist, Rodney Syme, sat facing Len, a man whose invasive bladder cancer was causing incontinence and blood clots that blocked the flow of urine.

Len needed to urinate every fifteen minutes, and frequently wet himself.  He was in excruciating pain.  It is cases like this, Syme would later write, in his book, A Good Death, that have caused generations of surgeons to whisper “Please God, do not take me through my bladder” (Syme 2008, 36).

Pale as chalk, “Len looked me straight in the eye”, Syme recalls, and asked “Isn’t there anything else you can do for me?”

Unwilling to treat Len as a “medical pawn”, Syme responded that he could write a prescription for sleeping tablets that Len could self-administer.

Syme writes: “I will never forget the look of intense relief and simultaneous gratitude that suddenly illuminated Len’s pallid face as his wish was granted” (Syme 2008, 38).

Len’s demise was hardly a textbook case of physician-assisted dying, but it was a turning point for Syme.

“I realized at this point that I had commenced on a ‘life of crime’, and that if future patients like Len were to come to me for help, I would have no option, in all conscience, but to continue in this ‘life of crime’” (Syme 2008, 41).

Len died in the mid-1970s.  But ever since then, Rodney Syme has been quietly, and more recently, not-so-quietly, pushing into the grey zone that separates lawful, palliative care from (unlawful) assisted dying.

In March 1997, when the Commonwealth Parliament used its constitutional powers to make laws for the territories to overturn the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 (NT), Rodney Syme vowed publicly to continue providing quiet assistance to patients when needed.

 

Syme v Medical Board of Australia (2016)

In January 2016, the Medical Board of Australia received a mandatory notification under Victoria’s version of the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law.

The notifier was the GP of a man called Bernard Erica.  Mr Erica had tongue cancer and secondary metastases in his lungs, and was at that time receiving palliative care.  His death was expected within one month.

Mr Erica’s GP advised the Medical Board of Australia that Mr Erica had told him that Dr Syme was going to assist Erica to end his life.

What Dr Syme had done with Mr Erica, as with some of his other patients, was to assure Mr Erica that he would give him a drug called Nembutal (pentobartal), that he could use if he chose to.

Medical practitioners are required to notify reasonable suspicions of “notifiable conduct” committed by other registered health practitioners.

The concept of “notifiable conduct” includes placing the public at risk of harm because the practitioner has “practised the profession in a way that constitutes a significant departure from accepted professional standards” (ss 140-144).

Under delegation arrangements, the powers of the Medical Board of Australia to take immediate action in relation to the subject of a complaint are exercised by the Immediate Action Committee (IAC), which is empowered to act immediately if it believes that “the practitioner poses a serious risk to persons” (s 156).

In this case, the IAC investigated the allegations and imposed the following condition on Dr Syme’s right to practice:

“Dr Rodney Syme [MED0000944514] is not to engage in the provision of any form of medical care, or any professional conduct in his capacity as a medical practitioner that has the primary purpose of ending a person’s life”.

Dr Syme appealed.  In Syme v Medical Board of Australia (Review and Regulation) [2016] VCAT 2150, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) upheld Dr Syme’s application for review.

VCAT set aside the Medical Board’s condition on his practice on the basis that the Tribunal could not form a reasonable belief that “Dr Syme’s conduct places persons at serious risk or that it is necessary to take immediate action to protect public safety” (para 185).

One of the ironies of this decision was that Dr Syme relied successfully on the much-contested distinction between “foresight and intention”.

He successfully denied intending to hasten Mr Erica’s life, or the life of his other patients, despite sometimes giving them possession of a well-known “euthanatic drug” which could not lawfully be used in medical practice in Australia, and despite knowing that his patients’ suicide was – at least – a possible consequence of his action.

The conventional account of palliative care is careful to maintain the distinction between foresight and intention; that is, it acknowledges a conceptual, legal and moral distinction between intending to end a patient’s life, and taking actions with the foresight that death might be a highly likely consequence of those actions.

This distinction does good work in some areas of medicine.  For example, it permits a surgeon to carry out highly risky surgery, including surgery that will “probably fail”, but which may nevertheless represent a patient’s best hope.

The question the Tribunal faced was whether this distinction is appropriately drawn when a doctor delivers euthanatic drugs into the hand of the patient, clearing the way for the patient to commit suicide.  Can the doctor plausibly deny having any intention to assist the patient’s suicide if the patient goes ahead and takes the drug?

This question turned on whether Dr Syme could plausibly argue that his game plan, in giving his patients Nembutal, was to assist the patient to recover a sense of control about their dying process, thereby relieving psychological distress and re-casting the doctor’s actions as a form of palliative care.

In his evidence, Dr Syme admitted he had counselled approximately 1700 patients about end-of-life matters during his career, and had given Nembutal to approximately 10% of them (para 70).

In rare cases Dr Syme would give Nembutal to a patient on his first visit with them because they were at the end stage of a terminal disease and suffering greatly.

However, Dr Syme did not keep written records of the psychological condition of his patients, nor document their mental state after he gave them Nembutal (para 70).

 

Asserting intentions

In A Good Death, Dr Syme pointed to the frailty of doctors’ intentions, writing that:

A doctor’s intentions in end-of-life decisions may be complex, ambiguous, multifactorial and uncertain, and an inadequate basis for legal definition (Syme 2008, 25).

In this case, however, Dr Syme was clear about the purpose of his actions.

“I can say that categorically, that my intention is to give a sense of control and by so doing to ease their suffering” said Dr Syme (para 57).

Dr Syme agreed that doctors are not authorised to prescribe barbiturates like Nembutal, and that this drug cannot be legally obtained by a medical practitioner.

However, the Tribunal pointed out that the lawfulness of Dr Syme’s conduct in obtaining the drug was not in issue.  The Tribunal’s task was limited to determining whether Dr Syme was a danger to his patients (para 137).

In the end, the Tribunal accepted that Dr Syme’s intention in giving patients possession of Nembutal was to give them relief from psychological and existential suffering, and that this palliation occurs because patients feel an increased sense of control and certainty about how their life will end (paras. 129, 143).

The Tribunal also decided that, to the extent that the giving of Nembutal to patients gave them the opportunity to use the drug to end their lives, that consequence (even if foreseen) was “not intended by Dr Syme and can be seen as a secondary but unintended consequence”.

Referring to the principle of “double effect”, the Tribunal wrote that: “The fact that the treatment also has the effect of providing an opportunity for the patient to later ingest the Nembutal is not intended by Dr Syme and can be seen as a secondary but unintended consequence” (147, para (i)).

The Tribunal concluded by saying that it was satisfied that the “the holistic approach adopted by Dr Syme [was] entirely focused upon supporting the patient in life rather than pre-empting the patient’s death” (para 179).

As a result, the Tribunal disagreed that Dr Syme posed a serious risk to persons, or to Mr Erica, and set aside the condition the Medical Board of Australia had imposed on Dr Syme’s practice.

 

A new boundary for palliative care?

In the well-known case of R v Cox (1992) 12 BMLR 38), a doctor administered Potassium Chloride to a patient with the intention of inducing cardiac arrest and death.

KCl has no therapeutic properties, and so its administration supported the inference of an intention to kill.  Since the body had been cremated, Dr Cox was charged with attempted murder only.  He was convicted; his merciful motive was not considered relevant.

If Dr Cox had merely given possession of the KCL to his patient on the premise that it might relieve suffering by giving the patient a greater sense of control, leaving it up to the patient whether or not to ingest the drug, could he – and should he – have avoided liability on that basis?

That is an issue of criminal law that awaits determination in Australia.

However, unlike the practice of “terminal sedation” – which ensures that a patient dies while unconscious due to sedation, doctors who dispense non-licensed drugs to patients in the quantities that would be needed for a successful suicide are essentially acting outside the conventions of the specialty of palliative care.

Making oneself a test case is a risky business.  Dr Syme risks consequences that go well beyond a condition being placed on his right to practice medicine.

That said, from my knowledge of him, Dr Syme is a decent, compassionate doctor and if I were terminally ill I would consider myself fortunate to have him at my bedside.

Moral conservatives may feel this ruling gives Syme carte blanche to assist suicides, inappropriately asserting an innocent intention while giving patients lethal quantities of a non-therapeutic drug that doctors have no business distributing.

Patients like Mr Erica may beg to differ.  They are less interested in the coherence of medical law, and more interested in a good death.

Are you interested in studying health law?  Sydney Law School’s Master of Health Law and Graduate Diploma in Health Law are open to both lawyers and non-lawyers.  Units of study taught in 2017 include Death Law, taught by Professor Cameron Stewart on 20, 21 April & 11, 12 May 2017.  For information on Sydney Health Law, the Centre for Health Law at Sydney Law School, click here.

Advancing the Right to Health: the Vital Role of Law

N0032287 Group portrait of seven boys, Ethiopia

More than 20 years ago, Chris Reynolds, an Australian pioneer in our understanding of public health law, wrote that: “law is a powerful tool, as potent as any of the medical technologies available to treat disease”, and yet “our understanding of the potential of [public health law]…to help…citizens to lead longer and healthier lives, is not well developed”. (Reynolds, “The Promise of Public Health Law” (1994) 1 JLM 212).

A new report entitled Advancing the Right to Health: the Vital Role of Law, published last week by the World Health Organisation, illustrates just how central law is to our health and wellbeing.

The full report, and each of its chapters, can be downloaded (free of charge) here.

brochure_final_print-high-resolution_page_1

Law a powerful tool for improving public health…everywhere

Countries around the world are using law and legislation across a broad range of areas to protect the health of their populations.

These areas include communicable and contagious diseases, and public health emergencies, maternal and child health, sanitation, water and vector control, the prevention of non-communicable diseases and their risk factors (such as tobacco, alcohol and obesity), prevention of violence and injuries, not to mention essential medicines and universal health coverage, and the regulatory challenges of strengthening health systems.

In each of these areas countries have a great deal to learn from each other.

One benefit of taking a global perspective on public health law is that you get a better sense how the field is buzzing with innovation.

For every jurisdiction where political will is lacking, there’s another that is trying out the new, whether at national, state, or local/city level.

Take legal responses to dietary risks as an example:

Even when new legislative proposals are adopted or accepted, they nevertheless illustrate new ways of addressing health risks, and possible future directions.

One example is the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Bill introduced for three consecutive years into California’s legislature, which would have required sugar-sweetened beverages and vending machines to carry the warning: STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

This proposal has not yet been successful in California.  However, San Francisco has passed a local ordinance requiring the same warning, although it is now subject to litigation.

N0032285 Group portrait of seven boys, Ethiopia

Sydney Health Law…partnering with WHO, IDLO and the O’Neill Institute

Advancing the right to health is the result of a collaboration between Sydney Law School’s health law program, the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, the International Development Law Organisation (IDLO) and the World Health Organisation.

The key message from this report is that there is enormous, untapped potential for governments to use law more effectively to reduce health risks and to make communities healthier and more resilient.

The report provides guidance about issues and requirements to be addressed during the process of developing public health laws, with case studies drawn from countries around the world to illustrate effective law reform practices and critical features of effective public health legislation.

Advancing the Right to Health: The Vital Role of Law was launched at the Graduate Institute in Geneva by Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General, Health Systems and Innovation, WHO.  WHO’s feature on the report is available here.

For comments made by Mr David Patterson, Senior Legal Expert – Health, International Development Law Organisation, see here.

For comments made at the launch by Professor Roger Magnusson, principal author of the report, on the connections between public health law and universal health coverage, see the following link: roger-magnusson-comments-at-launch-of-report-advancing-the-right-to-health-16-jan-2017

Are you interested in studying health law?  Sydney Law School’s Graduate Diploma in Health Law, and Master of Health Law are open to both lawyers and non-lawyers.  For further information, click here.  For information on Sydney Health Law, the Centre for Health Law at Sydney Law School, click here.

N0032286 Group portrait of seven boys, Ethiopia
N0032286 Group portrait of seven boys, Ethiopia

Once more with feeling…Barnaby Joyce on the merits of a sugary drinks tax

ssbs

Photo: Tongan Health Promotion Foundation

 

When I looked up from marking exams and saw the look on Barnaby Joyce’s face, I just knew he was seeing red about the Grattan Institute’s proposal for a sugary drinks tax, levied at a rate of 40 cents per 100 grams of sugar.

The Grattan Institute report estimates that such a tax would reduce the consumption of sugary drinks by about 15% and generate up to half a billion dollars that could help to pay for a broad array of obesity-related programs.

Imagine!  A public health policy that fights obesity, diabetes and tooth decay AND generates revenue.

The National Party hate the idea.  Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Nationals, Barnaby Joyce told reporters:

“If you want to deal with being overweight, here’s a rough suggestion: stop eating so much, and do a bit of exercise.  There’s two bits of handy advice and you get that for free.  The National Party will not be supporting a sugar tax”.

Well that’s what he said.

But here’s what I heard: “We know that obesity and diabetes are out of control.  But we have ideological objections to being part of the solution”.

The same day that Minister Joyce shared these thoughts with reporters, the Australian Food and Grocery Council issued a press release saying that it was seeking a “constructive response to obesity”.

“Obesity is a serious and complex public health issue with no single cause or quick-fix solution”, explained the AFGC, but “it is not beneficial to blame or tax a single component of the diet”.

With most complex issues, you start somewhere.  You come up with evidence-informed policies and you try them out.  You rigorously evaluate their performance, and learn by doing.

But not with obesity.  “Complexity” is the new enemy of action.  Since the causes of obesity are complex, every “single” policy advanced in response can be dismissed as a dangerously simplistic solution to a complex problem.

Welcome to obesity, the problem we’re not allowed to start to fix.

Except with personal responsibility, of course.

 

Personal responsibility…the answer to obesity, traffic accidents, terrorism, Zika virus, perhaps everything?

In a limited sense, Barnaby Joyce is right.

The only cure for personal obesity is personal responsibility.

But personal responsibility has turned out to be a spectacularly poor solution to “societal obesity”.

By societal obesity, I am referring to the trend towards overweight and obesity that has arisen over the past few decades and now affects the majority of adult men and women (and more than one in four children).

Since each of us is an individual, and because we live in a culture that prizes individual autonomy, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that individual effort, personal motivation, is the solution to the world’s ills.

But just as the global epidemics of obesity and diabetes were not caused by a catastrophic, global melt-down in personal responsibility, personal responsibility is equally unlikely to provide the magic solution.

That’s where public policies come in.

Governments know all this, but with the exception of tobacco control, they seem reluctant to apply their knowledge in the area of preventive health.

The fact is, from road traffic accidents to terrorism, smart governments:

  • acknowledge the complexity of the factors that contribute to societal problems;
  • They acknowledge that multiple interventions are needed, in many settings;
  • They acknowledge that possible solutions need to be trialled now, under conditions of uncertainty, instead of handing the problem to future generations.
  • They monitor the actions they take, because healthy public policy is a dynamic, ongoing process; and finally
  • They give a damn.  Meaning that they recognise they are accountable to the community for helping to solve difficult, societal problems, and for the performance of the public policies they administer.

Imagine if Australia’s government took that approach with obesity.

 

The debate about a sugary drinks tax is here to stay: it will never go away

A tax on sugary drinks will get National Party politicians in trouble with sugar producers, and Liberal Party politicians in trouble with big food.

The real problem is that it might work.  Based on the experience of Mexico, a sugary drinks tax will very likely cause consumers to purchase fewer sugary drinks.

Despite batting it away, a tax on sugary drinks is on the public agenda, and it’s here to stay.  I don’t see the sugary drinks industry winning on this issue indefinitely.

Partly because Australian health researchers will keep it on the agenda.

It will come back, and back.  Especially as evidence of its success accumulates overseas.

One conversation worth having is how revenues from a sugary drinks tax might support agricultural producers in rural Australia, helping to cushion them from the adverse effects (if any) of the tax and creating incentives for the production of a sustainable and healthy food supply.

That is simply one question worth considering during the process of developing a national nutrition policy (which we don’t currently have).

In the meantime, Australian health advocates need to broaden their base.

Advocacy for public policy action on obesity needs to become more closely integrated with advocacy on food security.   And advocacy in both areas needs to be linked more closely to action on reducing health inequalities.

But enough about all that.  You really came here for Barnaby, didn’t you?

OK, here he is:

The ATO is not a better solution than jumping in the pool and going for a swim. The ATO is not a better solution than reducing your portion size. So get yourself a robust chair and a heavy table and, halfway through the meal, put both hands on the table and just push back. That will help you lose weight.”

UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel: a bold vision for improving access to essential medicines, or a “deep disappointment”?

shutterstock_267836309

The UN Secretary General’s High-level Panel on Access to Medicines published its final report on 14 September 2016.

It took just two days for the US State Department to dismiss the report in a strongly-worded rebuke.

The Panel’s recommendations cover a wide area, including countries’ use of the flexibilities contained in TRIPS [the World Trade Organisation’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement] and TRIPS-plus  provisions, incentives for research and development of health technologies, and global governance arrangements for R&D, production, pricing and distribution of medicines and health technologies.

The UN report took place against the background of efforts by US pharmaceutical companies to strengthen IP protection for medicines, including through the (now apparently very dead) Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.

The Panel, which included Sydney Law School alumnus and former High Court Justice Michael Kirby, was an eminent but mixed group ranging from grassroots HIV treatment activists, former politicians, academics and senior executives of pharmaceutical firms.

Glancing over the biographies of members, you get the feeling that finding a consensus was always going to be a challenge.

Half the Panel members wrote additional commentaries to the Panel’s report, criticising the report for making dubious and unrealistic assumptions, or alternatively, for failing to adopt bolder and more visionary proposals on financing, IP and access (pp 54-63).

Regrettably, the Panel’s report, like the appointment of the Panel itself, has been ignored by Australia’s media.

Australians live in a bubble, protected by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) from experiencing the reality of real-world prices for essential medicines.

Under the PBS, patients pay a maximum of $38.30 for medicines listed on the PBS.  “Concessional patients” ie those who hold a pensioner concession, seniors health care or other concession card, pay only $6.20.

Unfortunately, Australia’s much-loved safety net for pharmaceuticals leads to lack of interest in this most pressing of global health issues: how to increase access to medicines at prices that are affordable to those who need them, while ensuring incentives exist for future R&D in health technologies.

Key issues and recommendations

A key argument in the Panel report is that there is an incoherency and imbalance between the right to health and the rules and practice of international trade and intellectual property protection.

For example, while IP rights are enforced by dispute resolution provisions found in WTO agreements, and in bilateral and multilateral free trade and investment agreements, the accountability mechanisms for human rights, including the human right to health, lack precision, legal weight and enforceability (p 8).

The Panel referred to the proliferation of “TRIPS-plus” free trade agreements that require countries to dispense with the flexibilities in TRIPS (see pp 24-25), writing that:

“Political and economic pressure placed on governments to forgo the use of TRIPS flexibilities violates the integrity and legitimacy of the system of legal rights and duties created by the TRIPS Agreement as reaffirmed by the Doha Declaration” (p 8).

The Panel report encourages countries to continue to make full use of TRIPS flexibilities in the spirit of the Doha Declaration, curtailing the evergreening of patents and ensuring that legislative criteria for the award of patents only reward genuine innovations.

The Panel encourages countries to adopt legislation authorising the issuing of compulsory licences, particularly in order to ensure affordable supply of essential medicines.

The Panel also encourages universities and research organisations that hold patents for inventions developed with public funds to prioritise public health objectives over financial returns, including by issuing non-exclusive licences, and participating in public sector patent pools.

The Panel urged governments to review the access to medicines situation in their own countries in light of human rights principles, ensuring that civil society is given the support it needs to submit shadow reports.  According to the Panel, national policy on R&D should be coordinated by an inter-ministerial body to ensure coherence.

Similarly, the Panel recommended that the UN Secretary-General should establish an inter-agency taskforce on health technology innovation and access for the duration of the Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030).  The Taskforce would oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the High-level Panel and would report annually to the UN Secretary-General.

The Panel saw transparency as a vital accountability mechanism, urging private sector companies to “have a publicly available policy on their contribution to improving access to health technologies”.  The policy should set out timeframes, reporting procedures and lines of accountability, including board-level responsibilities for improving access to health technologies (p 11).

Two further interesting recommendations were that national governments should require manufacturers and distributors of health technologies to disclose commercial in-confidence information to drug regulatory and procurement authorities.  This should include the costs of R&D, production, marketing and distribution of the health technology, as well as the existence of any public funding received by the company during the process of development.

Secondly, the Panel recommended that the World Health Organisation should maintain an accessible, global database showing the prices of patented and generic medicines (and biosimilars) in the public and private sectors of all countries where the medicines are registered.

State Department’s response

In its rebuff to the Panel’s report, the State Department said:

We believe that we can both increase access to medicines and support innovation for the development of new and improved drugs for the world’s most critical health challenges. Indeed, there can be no access to drugs that have not been developed: support for innovation is essential.

No one disputes that the costs of investment in new health technologies can be substantial.

However, the UN Panel pointed to the complexity of the challenge.  In some cases, the problem is that the market for diseases that affect few patients, or disproportionately affect the citizens of poorer countries, is simply inadequate to incentivise the necessary investment.

In 2014, 1.7 billion people in 185 countries were living with a neglected tropical disease.  These diseases account for around 12% of the global burden of disease, yet over the period 2000-2011 only 4% of therapeutic products registered by the European Medicines Agency and the US Food and Drug Administration were for these diseases.

Similarly, antimicrobial resistance is a slowly mounting crisis, yet “only one novel class of antibiotics has been developed in the past 40 years” (p 14).

This state of affairs suggests that it is an over-simplification to simply assert that the answer lies in countries ratcheting up their IP protections in the hope that market forces will fix the problem.

One doesn’t need to deny the value of patent rights and incentives to nevertheless conclude that the system is broken.

It’s impossible to conclude otherwise when millions of the world’s citizens lack the safety net of a PBS, and where access to the medicine they need at real-world prices overwhelms their productive capability.

A substantial literature illustrates that essential medicines remain unaffordable for many people, in many countries of the world; see, for example here, and here.

Are you interested in studying health law at Sydney Law School?  You do not need a background in law to do so.  Sydney Law School offers a Graduate Diploma and a Masters degree in health law that is open to qualified applicants.  Click here for further details.