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.

From the 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.

Lavin, explaining 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] seriously."

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.

The Commerce 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 disingenuous.

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.


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