Cracking the Codex: the new frontier for nutrition labelling

Alexandra Jones, Global health lawyer and PhD Candidate at The George Institute for Global Health and the University of Sydney
Dr Anne Marie Thow, Senior Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Sydney
Dr Carmen Huckel Schneider, Senior Lecturer, Health Policy at the University of Sydney and co-lead of the Health Governance and Financing Group and the Menzies Centre for Health Policy

Food labels hit the New York Times recently when leaks from North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations suggested the US was being urged by big American food and soft-drink companies to limit the ability of the pact’s three members – Mexico, Canada and the US – to implement warning labels on unhealthy foods.

There is no escaping the health imperative here. Obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 worldwide: 41 million children under 5 are now overweight, while 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese. Spiralling health and economic costs mean governments are turning to evidence-based policies to prevent and control diet-related diseases like obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and dental caries.

Better nutrition labelling – including front-of-pack labels that interpret nutrition information through symbols, colours or words – are part of the comprehensive package recommended by the World Health Organization. Over 20 countries already have policies in place – they include the UK’s traffic lights, France’s Nutriscore, Chile’s ‘stop sign’ warnings (which Peru appears set to follow), and Australasia’s Health Star Rating.

This proliferation and diversity poses trade and commercial challenges, and calls for some degree of consistency in global approach have been made.

Cracking the Codex (Alimentarius Commission)

This is where the international food standards body – the Codex Alimentarius Commission – comes in.

A UN body created by the WHO and UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Codex has a dual mandate: to protect consumer health, and promote fair trade practices.

Codex standards and guidance are voluntary, but in practice frequently act as a touchstone for countries looking to develop national policies. As Codex enjoys recognition as an international standards setting body by the WTO, guidance it develops also has potential to show up in trade discussions around food.

In short: what happens at Codex matters for public health nutrition.

Done well, Codex could bolster countries to take action. Left unchecked, there’s a risk outcomes could deter countries’ from implementing policies desperately needed to stem the rising global tide of non-communicable diseases.

As Codex is also notoriously slow – there’ll be a general meeting 2-6 July in Rome, and a further discussion paper for feedback later this year – it’s critical that the process itself not be used as a ‘brake’ on growing global momentum to implement strong front-of-pack labels.

Time for public health to assume a seat at the Codex table

Industry Observers have been quick to jump on opportunities to provide input into new Codex work on front-of-pack labelling. The first working group included representation from 13 international organizations representing the food industry, particularly the sugar and beverages sectors. Only two consumer groups were there.

It’s now critical we ensure public health bring their perspective to the table.

What you can do:

Read our briefing note for more information, and

  • Get involved – contact your national Codex Contact Point or join an Observer organization
  • Speak up about the public health priorities, like:
    • the importance of a definition of ‘front-of-pack nutrition labelling’ that supports schemes most likely to be effective in achieving public health objectives – and not, for example, industry preferred options such as the Guideline Daily Amount that aren’t backed by evidence
    • preserving policy space for strong and innovative measures – evidence is rapidly evolving but currently suggests for informing consumers and improving diets, this may include mandatory labels that use interpretive elements like colours, symbols or words, underpinned by robust and transparent criteria for scoring foods
  • Encourage continued action at a national level – remember, nothing in the current process prevents interested countries from pursuing front-of-pack labelling

Want to read more?

 

This piece was originally posted on the PLOS Global Health Blog on 25/06/2018, and has been re-posted with author consent.

 

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.

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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

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

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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.