In NAFTA Talks, U.S. Tries to Limit Junk Food Warning Labels

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Source: OECD Obesity Update 2017

Urged on by big American food and soft-drink companies, reports the New York Times,  the Trump administration is using the trade talks with Mexico and Canada to try to limit the ability of the pact’s three members — including the United States — to warn consumers about the dangers of junk food, according to confidential documents outlining the American position.

The Mexican government support for such restrictions “is one of the most invasive forms of industrial interference we have seen,” Alejandro Calvillo, the founder of El Poder del Consumidor, or Consumer Power, a health advocacy group in Mexico told the New York Times. Heading off pressure for more explicit warnings through the NAFTA negotiation is especially appealing to the food and beverage industry, writes the Times, because it could help limit domestic regulation in the United States as well as avert a broad global move to adopt mandatory health-labeling standards.  “It kind of kills a law before it can be written,” said Lora Verheecke, a researcher at the Corporate Europe Observatory, a group that tracks lobbying efforts. “And once you put it in one trade agreement, it can become the precedent for all future deals with future countries.”

Sustain, an alliance of advocates in the United Kingdom working for better food and agriculture policies and practices, summarizes some of the ‘”barriers to trade” that a 2017 report by the  US Office of the Trade Representative identified:

  • Additional nutritional labelling such as traffic light labels in the UK and Ireland. The US is arguing that these initiatives must remain voluntary.
  • South Africa’s plans to introduce a sugary drinks tax in 2016. The US raised concerns that the tax would effectively discriminate against sugary drinks. The move jeopardizes $5m of US sugary beverage exports
  • Proposals by six Gulf states to regulate energy drinks, including introducing labelling statements about recommended consumption. (One estimate puts this market at $2bn.)
  • Efforts by Chile to clearly label products high in sugar, salt and saturated fat and restrict junk food marketing on packaging to children. The US has referred the Chileans to the WTO saying delays and repackaging has cost the US firms ‘millions of dollars’ in lost sales
  • A food act in Peru introducing mandatory front of pack warnings for pre-packaged foods high in sugar, salt and fat and restrictions on junk food advertising to children and young people
  • Indonesia’s attempts to introduce nutritional labelling for pre-packaged and fast food along with and regulations to limit advertising and health claims aimed at children.

Twenty-Seven Years of Pharmaceutical Industry Criminal and Civil Penalties:1991 Through 2017

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Pharmaceutical Industry Financial Penalties, 1991-2017. Credit and source

A new report from Public Citizen concludes that the number and size of federal and state settlements against the pharmaceutical industry remained low in 2016 and 2017, with federal criminal penalties nearly disappearing. Financial penalties continued to pale in comparison to company profits, with the $38.6 billion in penalties from 1991 through 2017 amounting to only 5% of the $711 billion in net profits made by the 11 largest global drug companies during just 10 of those 27 years (2003-2012).  To our knowledge, a parent company has never been excluded from participation in Medicare and Medicaid for illegal activities, which endanger the public health and deplete taxpayer-funded programs. Criminal prosecutions of executives leading companies engaged in these illegal activities have been extremely rare. Much larger penalties and successful prosecutions of company executives that oversee systemic fraud, including jail sentences if appropriate, are necessary to deter future unlawful behavior. Otherwise, the illegal but profitable activities will continue to be part of companies’ business model.

Cutting-edge NHS drugs do more harm than good

Almost all new drugs approved for Britain’s National Health Service  do more harm than good, according to a study using  modelling adopted by the government, reports The Times (London).  Saving a life with a new drug can cost about twice as much as doing the same through more staff or equipment, according to official calculations that led to calls for reform of the way the NHS pays for medicines. The Department of Health and Social Care has implicitly conceded that the cost of most cutting-edge medicines kills more people through diverting money from other NHS services than the treatments themselves save.

FDA’s Gottlieb blames industry ‘Kabuki drug pricing’ for high costs

Reuters reports that U.S. Food and Drug Administration chief, Scott Gottlieb, criticized pharmacy benefit managers, health insurers and drug makers for “Kabuki drug-pricing constructs” that profit the industry at the expense of consumers.  The comments, made at a conference organized by a leading U.S. health insurer lobbying group, stoked speculation over what steps the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump may take to rein in lofty prescription drug costs.  “Patients shouldn’t face exorbitant out-of-pocket costs, and pay money where the primary purpose is to help subsidize rebates paid to a long list of supply chain intermediaries,” Gottlieb said at the meeting of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP). “Sick people aren’t supposed to be subsidizing the healthy.”

Pension Funds Under Pressure to Sell Off Investments in Gun-Makers

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Since the mass killing at a Parkland, Fla., high school earlier this month, many teachers have called on their state pension funds to sell their stakes in gun-makers, reports National Public Radio.  Private investment firms including BlackRock and Blackstone are reviewing their firearms investments in response to clients’ demands. “I’m currently urging my colleagues to divest in retail and wholesale suppliers of weapons that are banned for possession or sale in the state of California,” says State Treasurer John Chiang, who sits on the boards of his state’s two largest pension funds — CalPERS for public employees and CalSTRS for teachers.  “We can make a clear and powerful signal that the inaction by Congress is heartless, it’s intolerable, and there are people who want to make sure that kids aren’t losing their lives,” Chiang says.

Dick’s Sporting Goods Will Stop Selling Assault-Style Rifles, Set Under-21 Ban for Other Guns

The Washington Post reports that Dick’s Sporting Goods will no longer sell assault-style firearms, will ban high-capacity magazines and will not sell any guns to people younger than 21, the company announced Wednesday, a significant move for the retail giant in the midst of renewed calls for national gun reform.  Chief executive Edward W. Stack made the announcement during an appearance on “Good Morning America”, as well as through a company statement that said “thoughts and prayers are not enough” in the wake of America’s latest mass shooting. Two weeks ago, a gunman killed 17 people, most of them teenagers, in Parkland, Fla., with an AR-15 that was legally purchased. The alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz, bought a shotgun from a Dick’s store in November, Stack said during the television interview.

Bank of America takes aim at gun-making clients

Bank of America Corp became the latest financial heavyweight to take aim at gunmakers, saying it would ask clients who make assault rifles how they can help end mass shootings like last week’s massacre at a Florida high school, writes Reuters.  Bank of America, the second-biggest U.S. bank by assets, said its request to makers of the military-style weapons was in line with those taken by other financial industry companies to help prevent deadly gun rampages.  “An immediate step we’re taking is to engage the limited number of clients we have that manufacture assault weapons for non-military use to understand what they can contribute to this shared responsibility,” the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank said in a statement.

Tracking the Effects of Corporate Practices on Health