Background: New international laws have been proposed for various health issues, including those related to alcohol, biomedical research, chronic diseases, counterfeit drugs, and obesity. However, international law might not always be an appropriate response to global health challenges. We assessed the costs and consequences of international health law and developed criteria for its just use.
Methods: We used legal, political economy, and ethical frameworks to identify implications of international health laws that are not always considered, especially situations in which risks of negative consequences were particularly great.
Findings: International laws can be blunt instruments with many costs and they can be coercive and paternalistic. Direct costs include many meetings, air travel, legal fees, and support for decision-making bodies and secretariats. Indirect costs include lost opportunities to allocate limited resources to other important issues. Since all laws have costs, international laws cannot be exempt from normal priority-setting processes without justification. We identified four criteria for the use of international law to address global health challenges. The problem that a new international law addresses should be (1) transnational and (2) long term, and legal instruments should be (3) cost effective and (4) justify coercion. To be cost effective, the best-available research should suggest that a new law would provide a better cost to benefit ratio compared with other options. To justify coercion, the proposed law should either address multilateral challenges that cannot practically be addressed by one country only, enable collective action when the costs of common benefits are impractical for any individual state to pursue alone, or support humanitarian principles that are universally held. Use of international health law to dictate poor countries' policies and priorities from afar, or when less costly instruments (eg, non-binding soft laws) might be as effective, is inappropriate.
Interpretation: Not every global health challenge should be addressed with international law. Countries should consider our criteria before adopting new international laws. All available international instruments should be assessed to establish which is best for addressing each global health challenge.