In an all-out trade war, you've
got to hit the enemy where it hurts, starting with tariffs and
quotas, then escalating to sanctions. In a trade fracas -- much
more common, particularly among friendly nations -- the weapons of
engagement are more subtle and, perhaps, more creative.
A minor trade
conflict has surfaced between the U.S. and Thailand over the
latter's demand of a compulsory license for certain drug patents.
Rather than buying drugs at market price from companies that
produce them, the Thais will manufacture the drugs themselves and
provide them to its citizens at low cost.
pharmaceutical industry's point of view, Thailand has unfairly
seized its intellectual property -- in this instance, three drugs
used to fight AIDS and heart disease.
In a meeting two
weeks ago, the Commerce Department's undersecretary of
international trade, Frank Lavin, raised the issue with the Thai
Minister of Health, who responded that the action was necessary
because his country was facing a health emergency.
this to me, said, "Our core obligation as a government is the well-
being of our people overseas, so we have to take [his comments]
I began to understand
why a commerce undersecretary was calling a travel editor to review
a pharmaceutical conflict. If a Thai official says his country is
having a health emergency, perhaps Americans should be warned about
traveling to Thailand.
Department, however, does not issue travel warnings; the State
Department does. So Commerce approached State about whether it
should issue a warning on Thailand.
"I think it'll go
under discussion," Lavin said. "It's an open question."
I asked Lavin if he
felt it was appropriate to use State Department warnings as a
weapon of trade.
"In my view, that's
not an appropriate or wise use of the health warnings," he said.
"The warnings are there for a very specific, humanitarian purpose:
to keep Americans out of danger. The real question is, has the
prospect for health problems actually increased, as Thai government
statements to that effect [suggest]? Any evaluation of travel
warnings should be made purely on that basis."
It is true that State
Department advisories and warnings provide useful information to
help keep Americans safe, but it's also an open secret that State
Department cautions have been used to further America's political
and, at times, economic agenda. In the early 1990s, when Canada and
the U.S. were at an impasse over a trade issue, I recall that the
whole of Canada was put under a health advisory after an outbreak
of meningitis was reported in one town in the Yukon.
To protect against
legal liabilities, travel agents pass on State Department
advisories to travelers, even when they know doing so can kill a
sale. On that level, Lavin's narrative seems to pit the interests
of the pharmaceutical industry against those of the travel
industry. Should travel be expected to take a hit for the benefit
of Abbot Labs?
"We are committed to
the [travel] industry and supporting the [travel] industry," Lavin
responded. "We don't see this as a trade-off."
I know that Lavin had
spent the few days prior to our discussion negotiating with the
Chinese about travel issues, and I believe he conscientiously works
on behalf of the industry's interests. In the case of Thailand, he
may believe a health warning is an appropriate and logical response
(in a lawyerly sort of way), whether the Thais are being sincere or
I would be surprised,
however, if an objective review of the overall health situation in
Thailand revealed that it was less safe to visit than scores of
developing nations for which there is no advisory. (Last I heard,
heart disease is not contagious.) The Thais may be breaking the
accepted rules of the pharmaceutical game, but using travel
advisories to retaliate would only further undermine the legitimacy
of State's warnings.
The use of travel
advisories for political and economic ends is so odious that,
should a Thai advisory be forthcoming, the Travel Industry
Association and the Travel Business Roundtable should protest on
the principle that travel is not a weapon, but its opposite: It
unites the disparate peoples of the world, if only during the
moments they compare, in wonder and amazement, the confounding
activities of their own governments.