IPR in the ASEAN and plain packaging in the West

* This is my column in BusinessWorld on March 27, 2018.

Last week, March 22, a global coalition of 62 market-oriented independent or nongovernment think tanks and institutes sent a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO) on the subject, “Five years of failure: Global coalition letter against plain packaging.” Three institutes from ASEAN countries were among the signatories: the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS) in Jakarta, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) in Kuala Lumpur, and Minimal Government Thinkers (MGT) in Manila, my think tank.

The statement was circulated well in social media particularly by signatory-institutes. The paper noted,

“After Australia implemented the policy, other industries have been targeted around the world: alcohol, sugary beverages, fatty foods, even toys. These industries employ millions and any regulation that would deny key IP assets would have a devastating global economic impact. The trademark value alone of only twelve companies associated with these sectors is estimated to be more than $1.8 trillion.

The costs of plain packaging are enormous: the loss of the innovation incentive, the mutilation of established international IP law, the market carve-out to illicit actors, including terrorists. We urge the WHO and governments around the world to stop infringing on intellectual property rights with plain packaging policies.”

This coming April 18, IDEAS will hold a public forum on “Intellectual Property Rights in the ASEAN Economic Community: Challenges and Potentials” to be held at Intercontinental Kuala Lumpur. The forum will partly cover an emerging big issue in international trade — the proliferation of illicit products.

The proliferation of illicit trade and smuggling is ironic in a period of overall tariff reduction and trade liberalization in the ASEAN and many other regions in the world.

What explains this irony?

It is non-tariff barriers (NTBs) or non-tariff measures (NTMs). After all, these require additional permits, sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS), and technical barriers to trade (TBTs).

And, as mentioned in the letter, the emerging attack on IPR — plain packaging, abolition of trademark and logo, abolition of corporate branding, initially for tobacco products. Then advocates will move to other “unhealthy” goods like alcohol, sugary drinks, confectionery and candies, and so on.

Australia is the first country in the world to legislate and implement plain packaging or standardized packaging in December 2012. The estimated consumption of illicit and smuggled tobacco products was 12.2% of overall tobacco consumption in 2011 and 11.5% in 2012.

When plain packaging was implemented, the estimated illicit consumption went up: 13.5% in 2013, 14.5% in 2014, 14.1% in 2015, 13.9% in 2016 (source: KPMG, March 2017. “Illicit Tobacco in Australia, 2016 Full Year Report”).

Removing the trademark, logo and brand via plain packaging is less of an assault on tobacco companies with long years of corporate existence but more of an assault on a country’s tradition of protecting private property rights.

Below are some numbers showing average wealth and IPR protection in 15 economies, ASEAN + five in Northeast Asia. Data sources are (a) IMF’s World Economic Outlook (WEO) for GDP per capita, (b) Property Rights Alliance (PRA) International Property Rights Index (IPRI) 2017 Report, and (c) World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report (GCR) 2017-2018.

The GCR is composed of 12 pillars and pillar #1 is about Institutions; among the sub-pillars there is IPR protection (see table).

These numbers show that countries with high per capita GDP whether in current or nominal prices or in purchasing power parity (PPP) values are also those with high scores and global ranking in intellectual property rights (IPR) protection. And countries with low per capita income also have low scores and ranking in IPR protection. The exception to this trend is Brunei in the IPRI Report, and South Korea in the GCR.

High and rising taxes and now plain packaging as measures to discourage smoking is successful only in reducing smoking of legal and branded tobacco products. Not mentioned by advocates is that these measures are highly favorable to producers and distributors of illicit, fake, non-branded, and cheap tobacco products.

Since brand and product differentiation is effectively abolished, producers and manufacturers, old and new players, will only compete in pricing. So more cheap tobacco will be introduced and this will encourage more smoking.

To further reduce smoking incidence, governments and NGOs should continue public education about the dangers of smoking. But almost all smokers already know the dangers of smoking, the same way that cliff and plane jumpers, high wall/rock climbers, motorcycle stunt drivers, extreme bicycle downhill riders, deep sea scuba divers, MMA/UFC fighters, etc. know the dangers of their sports and passion but they keep doing it anyway, repeatedly.

People own their body, not governments or health NGOs. There is a limit to state nannyism and very often, such nannyism results in adverse, unintended consequences.

Governments should instead focus on protecting private property as a way to encourage more economic prosperity.


Coalition letter to WHO re plain packaging

Today, a global coalition of 62 market-oriented independent or non-government think tanks and institutes sent a letter to the WHO. Three institutes from ASEAN countries were among the signatories — CIPS in Indonesia, IDEAS in Malaysia, and MGT in the Philippines.

Cover page re PP
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
World Health Organization

December 01, 2017, marked the five-year anniversary of the full implementation of plain packaging in Australia. The removal of brands and trademarks from packaging remains a gross violation of intellectual property rights and has failed to achieve its intended goal. As a global coalition of sixty-two think tanks, advocacy groups and civil-society organizations that have been critical of plain packaging for any product, we write in response to proposed plain packaging tobacco control measures and to the announcements by several countries of their interest in pursuing these policies.

Intellectual property rights are human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 17, the right to ownership; Article 19, the right to freedom of expression; and Article 27, the right to protection of material interests. In this regard, even if plain packaging is effective, it should still be repealed, as rights are inalienable and should not be discarded for political purposes.

International trade law, the UNDHR, and historic international treaties are designed to protect intellectual property for this very purpose. The innovation incentive created by trademarks fuels competition and produces amazing products demanded by consumers like affordable medical advances that save lives. Obviously, any loophole should be closed, not exploited….

After Australia implemented the policy, other industries have been targeted around the world: alcohol, sugary beverages, fatty foods, even toys. These industries employ millions and any regulation that would deny key IP assets would have a devastating global economic impact. The trademark value alone of only twelve companies associated with these sectors is estimated to be more than $1.8 trillion.

The costs of plain packaging are enormous: the loss of the innovation incentive to the economy and society are inestimable, the mutilation of established international IP law is unprecedented, and the market carve-out to illicit actors, including terrorists, is reprehensible. It is beyond reason that such a policy continues to be pursued, even after it has failed to achieve its intended goal.

We urge the WHO and governments around the world to stop infringing on intellectual property rights with plain packaging policies.

(Full letter and names of institute heads, co-signatories, see:
http://www.propertyrightsalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/2018-Global-Plain-Packaging-Coalition-to-WHO.pdf, or

Governments and the UN on patent prizes

Reposting another article by Philip published in BusinessWorld on February 14, 2018.

How governments can screw up the development of new drugs
by Philip Stevens

THE PATENT-BASED system of drug development will come under further pressure from key countries aiming to increase access to medicines at the executive board meeting World Health Organization in March.

Critics of the system want reform, arguing it makes drugs too expensive and fails to provide cures for those in need who may be unable to pay, such as people in developing countries. They want to slash drug prices by replacing intellectual property rights with government-funded prizes as the primary innovation incentive for medicines.

Developers of new drugs would gain government cash prize rewards for the successful development of a new medicine.

In return, companies would be forced to hand over their intellectual property rights to the government, allowing generic manufacturers to enter the market immediately. Competition between generic drug manufacturers would boost access to those in need as new drugs would be sold at their marginal cost of manufacture, so the theory goes.

Meanwhile, governments would control and plan what disease areas are rewarded by prizes, ensuring that funding is allocated to health priorities in a fair and transparent fashion.

“Delinking” the cost of R&D from the final price paid for a medicine, and making governments the funders and planners of drug development, sounds like a simple public health care solution. But so far, no country has taken the plunge.

This is not surprising; “delinkage” is not the silver bullet claimed by its supporters.

One charge leveled against the patent-based system is that it creates losses for patients by inflating medicine prices well beyond their manufacturing costs. This downplays the economic benefits of new medical technologies from averted hospitalization and fewer sick days for workers. But more to the point, an innovation system based on prizes could create just as many, if not more, economic losses.

The prizes fund would have to come from taxpayers; their burden would be at least the $141 billion spent by the private sector on R&D each year. Income tax hikes would distort labor markets and interfere with job creation.

Then there would be the added costs of the enormous new bureaucracy to manage the prizes system.

In the absence of private sector investment, which country would be willing to fill this funding gap? Here the rhetoric of many countries, including India, at World Health Organization meetings in Geneva has not been matched by serious action. Even modest WHO R&D delinkage “demonstration projects” fall $73 million short of the $85 million required, with contributions from only 10 countries.

This new world of government-funded prizes to drive medicine innovation does not look promising.

Money apart, designing prizes that work is even more of a problem. Government committees would struggle to determine the true economic and social value of medicine before it is even created.

With estimates for developing a new medicine between $1.2 billion and $2.6 billion, this matters a whole lot.

Stevens-021418-768x402For prizes lower than the true market value of the invention, drug developers — and the venture capitalists so instrumental for start-ups — would direct their capital away from medicine R&D towards politically safer but less socially useful areas. New medicines would dry up.

If a government prize committee overvalues the prize, it would trigger duplication of R&D as competitors swarm. Curious then that proponents of these prizes argue they will end the supposedly “wasteful” and duplicative R&D under the patent system.

Finally, there is the problem of politicization. A prize system would hand significant new discretionary powers to government officials as the judges of which medicines win prizes. Political factors would influence decisions on where to allocate funding, rather than clinical need. Diseases that could summon the most vocal lobby groups would get attention from prize bureaucrats, while less fashionable diseases may be ignored.

Political connections and lobbying could both play a role in securing a prize, while elected officials may attempt to influence R&D spending by government agencies.

Patents, on the other hand, represent a far less arbitrary form of innovation incentive. Government merely sets the framework of patent law, under which all companies compete. And competition is the key to innovation.

Take hepatitis C, until recently an incurable disease afflicting around 12 million Indians. Since 2013, no fewer than 10 new treatments have come onto the market, offering clinicians a huge range of options. Such breadth and speed of innovation under a winner-takes-all prize system is hard to picture.

Despite their superficial attraction, no country (other than the technologically backward former Soviet Union) has yet replaced intellectual property rights with prizes. The reasons are clear. Prizes risk economic distortions, undermining incentives for innovators, and adding a new layer of bureaucratization and politics. Be warned, therefore: delinkage and drug development do not go hand in hand.


Philip Stevens is director of Geneva Network, a UK-based research organization focusing on trade, innovation and health policy.

WHO must go back to basics

Reposting this good article by a friend, published in BusinessWorld last January 18, 2018.

To maintain relevance, WHO must go back to basics
by Philip Stevens

AS one of 34 executive board members of the World Health Organization (WHO) meeting in Geneva next week, the Philippines shares a pivotal role in setting the global health agenda for the next year.

The WHO’s work has never been more important to address serious and evolving international health threats. It is only a matter of time before there is another global influenza pandemic to match the devastating outbreak of 1918, and, as recent outbreaks of Ebola and Zika have shown, new and deadly diseases can emerge at any time.

As a UN organization to which almost every country in the world belongs, the WHO should make strengthening national health systems and coordinating defenses against transnational disease its priority. But it’s often hard to know if the organization has any priority.

Superficial involvement in a ballooning number of health areas has made it a directionless, ineffective, and inward-looking player in an increasingly crowded global health scene.

The WHO’s tendency to do a lot poorly has seen it fail in its core business of leading international action on transnational disease outbreaks.

Take the organization’s response to the West African Ebola crisis of 2014.

An expert panel convened by Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Tropical Medicine criticized the WHO for its “catastrophic” delay in declaring a public health emergency.

The worry is that WHO will fail to handle the next inevitable global pandemic, leading to needless loss of life.

Funding is part of the problem: The WHO spent just 5.7% of its 2014-2015 budget on disease outbreaks, a 50% drop on the previous two years.

The WHO’s core budget, paid by member governments, fell from $579 million in 1990 to a feeble $465 million this year. To put this in context, this is considerably less than the Philippines receives each year in foreign aid earmarked for health.

The WHO has topped up its budget with project-based donations from countries and big charities, which now constitute 80% of its overall income. But that has cost the WHO its strategic independence.

Alongside global health staples like tropical diseases and immunization, the WHO now publishes recommendations on subjects from adolescent health and headaches to traffic safety and prisons.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the UK-based global health research charity the Wellcome Trust, argues the WHO is being undermined by its inability to focus on a few core issues.

“It’s so thinly stretched,” he told Reuters. “There’s arguably no organization on earth that could cover all those (topics) at sufficient depth to be authoritative.”

This lack of focus and mission creep will be on full display at next week’s WHO executive board meeting. Bizarrely, large parts of the agenda are dedicated to discussion of how to dilute the intellectual property (IP) protections that drive discovery of new health technologies.

Given the scale of today’s global health challenges, it’s not clear how repeating a tired and long discredited debate about IP and access to medicines will help. The vast majority of treatments prescribed in both developing and developed countries are off-patent and therefore unaffected by IP rules, yet far too many still do not have reliable access to them.

The real reasons for this have been well known for decades. There are too few doctors and clinics, and a lack of social and health insurance to protect people from the cost of health care expenditures (something WHO itself implicitly recognizes in its efforts to promote universal health care). In many places, weak supply chains and poor infrastructure separate people from the treatments they need.

A narrow and divisive focus by WHO on IP may tick political boxes, but it does nothing to improve health and will only lead to more unproductive debate. It looks like a power grab by WHO staff to intervene in areas that are best left to national governments.

In 2017, former Ethiopian foreign minister Tedros Adhanom was elected as new director general on a mandate to reform and consolidate the WHO. Almost immediately, he appointed no fewer than 14 assistant director generals to oversee a huge number of program areas. This is not the work of a reformer.

Next week is the first executive board meeting under Tedros’s leadership. The Philippines and other member states need to steady the ship. To maintain its relevance, WHO must get back to basics and do a few things well, not many things poorly. It must therefore unite nations around practical solutions, not divide them in pointless debates.


Philip Stevens is director of Geneva Network, a UK-based research organization focusing on international trade and health issues.

WHO health alarmism and IPR tinkering

Seven years ago, I briefly surveyed the various offices under the UN and I was surprised to see about 100+ different agencies. See UN bureaucracies — too many! (December 20, 2010).

Among the huge and wide UN offices and bureaucracies is the World Health Organization (WHO). On its website, Media Center, News Releases 2017, these stories seem like we are still in the 90s or even the 80s, or the 70s — there are many scary and alarmist stories in public health around the world until now.

It is already 2018 — when illiteracy is already zero in many developing countries, when smoke signal and animal whistles are no longer used to communicate as hundreds of millions of poor people in developing and emerging countries now use smart phones with access to emails, facebook, twitter, youtube and other social media.

And the WHO and WB still declare that “half the world lack access to essential health services”? That measles “still kills 90,000 per year”?

Going back a few decades ago, the WHO was known for various health alarmism worldwide. Like the HIV/AIDS alarmism in the 80s to 90s and more recently, about NCDs (non-communicable diseases) alarmism.

Then the usual fare of the WHO — blame directly or indirectly IPR and drug patents by innovator pharma and biotech R&D. Also blame free trade and FTAs for expensive medicines.

And I was surprised to see this.



“Global shortage of medicines and vaccines”, wow. Since about 95-99% of WHO’s essential medicines list (EML) are already off-patent, what stops the WHO and member-governments from mass-producing these drugs, directly or indirectly?

The WHO needs to shrink, both in size of bureaucracy and governments’ funding. It has lots of health and economic global central planners that they want to plan-and-control many things and policies, forgetting that it was the private sectors and corporations’ risk-taking that gave the world plenty of life-saving medicines since many decades ago.

My first article in BusinessWorld, Oct 2007, on IPR

I just rediscovered this image from my old emails a decade ago — my first article in BusinessWorld. Reposting.

Intellectual Property Rights
BWorld, October 24, 2007, page 5.

Downloading pirated songs from the internet is cool. Dying from counterfeit medicine is not. But the pirates and the slack law enforcement that give you one also give you the other–and there are people who will tell you this is a good thing.

Many governments and humanitarian groups want you to believe that patents and intellectual property rights on medical innovations deprive the poor of important medicines and should be discarded in the name of public health.

But if one’s innovation and invention that produces welfare to society, like producing medicines to cure malaria or cancer, using extracts from the leaves and fruits of the most common fruit tree in a particular country, is not respected, why would some guys innovate in the first place? It is protection of patents that brought those useful drugs into existence, along with millions of other products, wonderful and mundane alike: yielding to the slogan “patients over patents” would hurt poor patients the most by depriving them of new inventions.

Say you are an unknown band, performing in bars. You wrote a few good original compositions and your audiences like them. Suddenly your songs have been recorded and patented by someone else, on albums and CDs, with no mention of you and no royalties. How would you feel?

You are a researcher or academic. You presented a paper to a conference. A few months later, you see a paper published in some magazine or journal that contains most of your paper–your methodology, scientific model, data, results and conclusions. How would you feel?

You are an ordinary inventor. You invented a device that can reduce fuel consumption in diesels by 35% and you’re selling it for a few bucks because you don’t have a wide marketing network, or you don’t have the capacity for mass production. Then, a few months later, your device is patented by someone who is selling it a handsome price, with no mention of you.. How would you feel?

The civil contracts of intellectual property, like deeds to physical property, underpin innovation, creativity and growth, as well as personal and political freedoms. Left-leaning health activists claim that breaking patents would hit multinationals and “Big Pharma” hardest–but these guys are innovators, they can find their way out like investing their money and people into something else, like new cosmetics and perfumes. It’s the poor who will suffer most, from bad products, lack of new effective medicines, and economic stagnation.

And how do the consumers feel when they get these rip-offs? If you buy a pirated book or CD and it turns out to be of bad quality, you only lose your money. But if you buy pirated and bad quality medicine, you can lose your health–even your life.

This year Kenya found 20,000 counterfeit doses of anti-malarial Duo-cotecxin, one of many counterfeits in an uncontrolled market where some 35,000 people die of malaria each year. The fake, probably from China, does not just fail to cure the disease, it can increase drug resistance and make patients worse.

Governments around the world like to play the hero by promising to reduce prices, usually by price controls or patent infringement but never by cutting taxes on goods or service. My older brother, our eldest in the family, died of prostate cancer more than a year ago. His earlier hormonal chemo-theraphy cost around P25,000 per session excluding the physician’s fee. Of that amount, government VAT collection alone was P3,000 per session. After several sessions, he did not get well. He was later given chemo that cost P90,000 per treatment, of which government’s VAT was nearly P11,000 per session. The import tax, corporate income tax, business permit and other related taxes not included yet.

If a government wants to bring down the price of medicines, rice, clothing, fertilizers, farm tractors, or any commodity essential to life and economic growth, the first thing would be to drastically cut, if not abolish, the import duties and direct taxes that hit the poor hardest.

So the next time your government blames foreign companies or international rules for high prices, find out what taxes and covert barriers it is hiding from you–and shout the truth out loud.

On plain packaging, from For free choice

Short but direct arguments, I like this article, reposting.


The failure of the plain package

The Australian plain packaging legislation was implemented in December 2012. Since then, trademarks, logos, non-prescribed colors and graphics have been removed from packs. But 5 years later, there is no evidence that plain packaging has achieved (or is likely to achieve) any public health benefits.

The Australian plain packaging legislation was implemented in December 2012. Since then, branding on tobacco packaging has been banned. Trademarks, logos, non-prescribed colors and graphics have been removed from packs, and only the use of a brand name in a prescribed font and size is allowed.

The tobacco control lobby claims that plain packaging is likely to lead to improvements in public health at no cost to anyone but the tobacco industry. But:

  • There is no evidence that plain packaging has achieved (or is likely to achieve) any public health benefits;
  • It is disproportionate, unjustified and unnecessary;
  • It has widespread negative consequences; and
  • It risks breaching legal rights as protected by various laws and treaties.

Consumers do not choose to smoke based on branded cigarette packaging, but consumers do use branding to identify differences between products, including between legal and illegal brands.

Does plain packaging work? It doesn’t.

The Australian government collects data on national smoking behaviour every three years as part of its National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS). The most recent batch of data is from 2016, and reports no statistically significant decline in the overall daily smoking rate between 2013 (12.8%) and 2016 (12.2%). This is the first instance of no decline in 23 years. How can plain packaging be said to work when the smoking rate has not declined following its introduction?

The market share of illegal tobacco increased by nearly 30% within the first two years of plain packaging being implemented in Australia in 2012. Today, the market share of illegal tobacco remains over 20% higher than pre-2012, representing 13.9% of tobacco consumed in Australia and representing approximately $1.6 billion AUD in lost tax revenue to the Australian Government according to the KPMG Report – Illicit Tobacco in Australia – Full Year 2016.


A government that regulates tobacco appropriately – implementing evidence-based laws that benefit public health while allowing legal industries to compete fairly – protects both the health of its citizens and of its economy. Branding protects our legal economy and tax revenues from criminals.

Plain packaging prevents consumers from differentiating between legal and illegal products, which results in a sharp increase in illegal tobacco and a sharp decline in tax revenues.

Globally, illicit tobacco deprives governments of $40 billion per year.

If Governments are serious about reducing tobacco consumption then it is time to consider alternative evidenced-based measures available to achieve the same public policy objectives, which are less restrictive, more targeted and proportionate.