Drug Patents Are Protectionism, Why Does the NYT Feel the Need for Quotes?

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Wednesday, 23 October 2013 05:17

Trade policy is perhaps the most Orwellian area of U.S. politics today. Most formal trade barriers in the form of tariffs or quotas have been eliminated. What usually occupies the time of trade negotiators now is the crafting of regulatory rules dealing with health and safety issues, the environment, and other areas having little direct relationship to trade. Since the parties at the table generally reflect corporate interests, the strategy is to use "trade" agreements to put in place rules that may not be politically possible at the national or sub-national level due to the opposition of consumer, environmental, or labor groups.

In some cases "free trade" talks turn reality on its head, for example negotiating stronger patent and copyright protections. The former is especially the case with drug companies who have been major actors in the trade agreements pushed by the United States for the last quarter century.

The industry's push for greater protection for its patents or other forms of intellectual property claims, such as data exclusivity, are quite explicitly intended to push up drug prices. The rationale is that higher drug prices will support more research. The extent to which is true, or whether patents are the best way to finance research, is debatable, but the fact that drug companies want government protections to allow them to raise their prices is not. 

That is why it is strange that the NYT felt the need to put the word "protectionism" in quotation marks in an article on how people in the United States are increasingly buying drugs from other countries where they are available at much lower prices. The quotation marks were added in the context of presenting the views of a retiree who was saying that he had saved thousands of dollars over the last decade by buying drugs from other countries.

"Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist and health care advocate in North Carolina, said he has saved thousands of dollars buying medicines from overseas in the past decade. 'It may be technically illegal, but I don’t think anyone would ever get prosecuted,' he said, adding that such laws reflected 'protectionism' for drug makers."

It is difficult to see any legitimate reason for including quotation marks around protectionism. The restrictions on importation are clearly a form of protectionism. That is not an arguable point.