TCS Daily

Promote Trade in Life-Saving Technologies to Improve Health Abroad

By David Charles - July 24, 2001 12:00 AM

"Open trade is not just an economic opportunity, it is a moral imperative," said President Bush in May. His address drew more than usual interest because it didn't focus on economics, the way speeches about trade generally do. The benefits of international trade, he said, "are measured not only in dollars and cents, but in human freedom, human dignity, human rights, and human progress." More important than making us prosperous, the free flow of goods creates jobs for the unemployed, promotes democracy abroad, and advances political freedom everywhere.

He might have added that free trade is good for our health, too.

That's because medical goods and services are an important part of the global economy. And while it's possible to make an economic case for opening markets overseas to these products--companies that export medical goods and services employ thousands of Americans--the more compelling reason, as the president suggests, is grounded in something else.

The United States leads the world in life-saving technologies, and we're making incredible progress against the most awful afflictions. Between 1992 and 1998, for instance, cancer deaths dropped by more than 1 percent each year. In a few areas, the improvement has been especially impressive: Breast-cancer deaths among women declined an average 2.4 percent annually during those years.

Advancing technology is a big part of the reason why, from new forms of radiation therapy to DNA-based screening tests. Open trade means that other countries would have access to the innovations that have made Americans healthier. Many more advances are on the horizon, too. Telemedicine--to take a single example--would allow doctors and other health professionals to lend their expertise to people in remote rural areas. Developing countries have an obvious interest in this particular technology.

For those who think this is all well and fine but still demand that open trade deliver financial benefits, consider this: Each 1-percent decline in cancer mortality increases social wealth by half a trillion dollars, according to economists Robert Topel and Kevin Murphy. Those six years of improvement in the United States, then, are worth about two times the Bush administration's recent tax cut.

The obvious corollary is that if free trade makes a healthier world, then it also makes a wealthier world--and that's good for everybody.

Unfortunately, the United States--the country most able to improve world health--is not taking full advantage of the global economy. Seven years ago, the executive branch lost its ability to negotiate international trade pacts and place them before Congress for an up-or-down vote. Trade Promotion Authority is a tool every president from Gerald Ford to Bill Clinton has had--and now it's vital that TPA be extended to the current president, as well as his successors.

Other countries have taken great advantage of international trade liberalization in recent years. There are some 130 open-trade agreements around the world, but the United States is involved with just two of them--one with Canada and Mexico (NAFTA), and another with Israel. The European Union, in comparison, has negotiated compacts with 27 countries in recent years and has another 15 in the pipeline.

This should be of enormous concern to anybody worried about how the United States will fare in the competitive global marketplace--we're being left behind in the dust. The trend simply is not good for Americans.

But it isn't good for the rest of the world, either. In fact, it's downright deadly, so long as it keeps life-saving goods and services from finding their way to people who need them.

Whether it's AIDS in Africa or colon cancer in Colombia, we all have an interest in healing the sick. The best way to promote health may be to promote trade--and the best way to promote trade is definitely for Congress to approve Trade Promotion Authority.

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