A consortium of patient groups and health activists in Thailand has begun a campaign to get the Public Health Minister, Chaiya Sasomsub, removed from office.

They have presented the Speaker of the Senate, Prasopsuk Boondet, with a “statement of intent” which sets out their case for the Minister’s impeachment and, if the Senate decides there is a case to answer, they will have to gather at least 20,000 signatures supporting their campaign within 180 days in order for it to go forward.

The campaign, which is being spearheaded by the Thailand’s leading consumer organisation the Foundation for Consumers, hinges on Mr Chaiya’s highly controversial decision to cancel the compulsory licensing programme introduced by his precedessor, Mongkol Na Songkhla, and to re-examine the compulsory licenses on three cancer drugs - Novartis’ Femara (letrozole), Sanofi-Aventis’ Taxotere (docetaxel) and Genentech’s Tarceva (erlotinib) – which were issued by Mr Mongkol on January 4, just before he left office. In February, the government cancelled the compulsory license on a fourth cancer drug, Novartis’ Glivec/Gleevec (imatinib) after the firm agreed to supply it free to patients in Thailand.

Mr Chaiya said he was cancelling the programme and reviewing the issued compulsory licenses because he believed the cost to Thailand of paying the drugs’ full prices would be less than that of trade sanctions or boycotts, especially from the USA. In March, however, Mr Chaiya announced that, as his review had shown that maintaining the programme would save the government more than 3 billion baht a year and allow cancer patients access to affordable drugs, he would be advising the government that the compulsory licenses for the three cancer drugs should stand.

However, it is widely believed that public opinion forced him into this decision, and the groups campaigning for his removal are concerned that no further compulsory licenses will be issued, and even that the system set up by the previous government for determining which drugs should be obtained in this way could be dismantled. The groups petitioning for Mr Chaiya’s removal include a coalition of patients suffering from cancer, HIV/AIDS and kidney disease, plus the AIDS Access Foundation and professional associations of rural doctors and pharmacists.

They claim that his review of the programme was unconstitutional, potentially damaging to the national budget and in contravention of the government policy on equal access to health care for all. He also reassigned, without justification, health officials engaged in the policy, including firing the Health Ministry’s lead negotiator with the drugmakers, they say.

Thailand appears on the US Trade Representative's current Priority Watch List for intellectual property transgressors – a new list is to be published this month. However, US trade officials have always denied that any trade sanctions against the country are planned over the compulsory licensing issue, and the European Commission has denied media reports that it was intending to take action.