Globalization and Health | 06 September 2021
Do international trade and investment agreements generate regulatory chill in public health policymaking? A case study of nutrition and alcohol policy in South Africa
by Penelope Milsom, Richard Smith, Simon Moeketsi Modisenyane & Helen Walls
Trade and health scholars have raised concern that international trade and particularly investment disputes may be used by transnational health harmful commodity corporations (THCCs) to effectively generate public health regulatory chill. The purpose of this study was to contribute to the limited evidence base of trade or investment dispute-related regulatory chill using a case study of nutrition and alcohol policy in South Africa.
We conducted 35 semi-structured interviews with 36 key stakeholders involved in nutrition, alcohol and/or trade/investment policymaking in South Africa. Interview transcripts were analyzed using thematic analysis. We used Schram et al’s theory on three forms of regulatory chill (anticipatory, response and precedential) to guide the analysis. We report evidence on each form of regulatory chill as well as specific contextual factors that may influence the risk of regulatory chill.
Trade obligations were found to generate a significantly greater anticipatory-type chilling effect on nutrition and alcohol regulation than South Africa’s investment treaty obligations. Response chill was reported to have occurred in relation to South Africa’s proposed tobacco plain packaging regulation while awaiting the outcome of both Australia’s investor-state and WTO state-state disputes. No cases were reported of THCCs threatening an investor-state dispute over nutrition or food regulations, but there were reported cases of THCCs using arguments related to South Africa’s trade obligations to oppose policy action in these areas. No evidence of nutrition or alcohol policy precedential chill were identified. Factors affecting the risk of policy chill include legitimacy and perceived bias of the dispute system, costs involved in pursuing a regulation/defending a dispute and capacity to pay, social acceptability of the industry, a product’s perceived risk to health and confidence in a successful dispute outcome e.g. through cross-border policy learning.
Our findings indicate that currently, South Africa’s trade obligations have a more prominent role in inhibiting nutrition and alcohol action than investment treaty-related concerns. However, given the potential for wider use of the ISDS mechanism by THCCs in the future, strategies to protect public health policy space in the context of both international trade and investment treaty and dispute settlement contexts remain important.