Date Published: June 26, 2018
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Pepita Barlow, Ronald Labonte, Martin McKee, David Stuckler, Ed Gregg
Abstract: BackgroundIt has long been contested that trade rules and agreements are used to dispute regulations aimed at preventing noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Yet most analyses of trade rules and agreements focus on trade disputes, potentially overlooking how a challenge to a regulation’s consistency with trade rules may lead to ‘policy or regulatory chill’ effects whereby countries delay, alter, or repeal regulations in order to avoid the costs of a dispute. Systematic empirical analysis of this pathway to impact was previously prevented by a dearth of systematically coded data.Methods and findingsHere, we analyse a newly created dataset of trade challenges about food, beverage, and tobacco regulations among 122 World Trade Organization (WTO) members from January 1, 1995 to December 31, 2016. We thematically describe the scope and frequency of trade challenges, analyse economic asymmetries between countries raising and defending them, and summarise 4 cases of their possible influence. Between 1995 and 2016, 93 food, beverage, and tobacco regulations were challenged at the WTO. ‘Unnecessary’ trade costs were the focus of 16.4% of the challenges. Only one (1.1%) challenge remained unresolved and escalated to a trade dispute. Thirty-nine (41.9%) challenges focussed on labelling regulations, and 18 (19.4%) focussed on quality standards and restrictions on certain products like processed meats and cigarette flavourings. High-income countries raised 77.4% (n = 72) of all challenges raised against low- and lower-middle–income countries. We further identified 4 cases in Indonesia, Chile, Colombia, and Saudi Arabia in which challenges were associated with changes to food and beverage regulations. Data limitations precluded a comprehensive evaluation of policy impact and challenge validity.ConclusionsPolicy makers appear to face significant pressure to design food, beverage, and tobacco regulations that other countries will deem consistent with trade rules. Trade-related influence on public health policy is likely to be understated by analyses limited to formal trade disputes.
Partial Text: Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are now the leading cause of death worldwide, a major impediment to poverty reduction, and estimated to cost the global economy US$47 trillion over the next two decades . At the highest political level, there is now recognition of the urgency of addressing NCDs: the UN Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by 193 countries in September 2015, included a target to reduce mortality from NCDs by one-third by 2030. This follows from the UN Political Declaration on the Prevention and Control of NCDs, agreed on in September 2011 [2,3]. To achieve these goals, WHO recommends ‘best buys’ for combatting NCDs, which are low-cost and potentially even revenue-generating. Many recommended policies are fiscal or regulatory, including labelling regulations on processed food and alcoholic beverages [4,5], taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages , and plain packaging of tobacco . While there is strong evidence to support them, implementation is often challenged by vested economic interests .
Our systematic analysis of trade challenges at the WTO between 1995 and 2016 demonstrates that a growing number of food, beverage, and tobacco regulations are extensively scrutinised and challenged on the basis of their purported violations of trade rules. This yielded at least 4 important findings. First, the regulations targeted by trade challenges were diverse, including those dealing with infant milk formulae, alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, manufactured food products and their ingredients, cigarettes, tobacco, and cigarette flavourings. Second, countries most frequently challenged one another’s labelling regulations and product quality standards or restrictions on using certain products such as processed meats or cigarette flavourings. Members often challenged the additional costs of the measure, requested more information, and sought greater transparency in other country’s notification procedures. Third, there were marked power asymmetries: although high-income members—especially the EU and the US—most frequently raised and defended trade challenges, over three-quarters of challenges raised against low- and lower-middle–income members were raised by high-income members. Finally, trade challenges were often raised on multiple occasions before the regulation was ratified or implemented, potentially delaying or impeding the policy altogether. In 4 country case studies from Indonesia, Chile, Colombia, and Saudi Arabia, trade challenges were associated with changes or delays in food and beverage regulations. In the case of Chile and Saudi Arabia, these countries did eventually proceed with new laws. It remains possible, however, that both countries—and especially Chile—may face a formal WTO dispute over their policies.
Our systematic analysis of trade challenges at the WTO between 1995 and 2016 demonstrates that a growing number of food, beverage, and tobacco regulations are extensively scrutinised and challenged on the basis of their purported violations of trade rules. This pressure may have been influential in delaying, altering, or abandoning food, beverage, and tobacco regulations. Our study also revealed significant power asymmetries: a majority (77.4%) of challenges raised against low- and lower-middle–income countries was raised by high-income countries. These findings show that policy makers appear to face significant pressure to design food, beverage, and tobacco regulations that other countries will deem consistent with WTO rules and that policy making in low- and lower-middle–income countries may face pressure from the economic and political interests of wealthier nations.