Public Health Law Research Book Club: “The New Public Health Law”

Cover of new textbook, The New Public Health LawThe newest textbook in public health law comes from Scott Burris, Micah Berman, Matthew Penn and Tara Ramanathan Holiday. The New Public Health Law is an effort to equip students in law, public health, social work and other fields in the public health and social policy realms with the tools to fully exploit the potential of law to improve public health. It takes a transdisciplinary approach, breaking down complex legal processes into discrete and understandable stages, using examples from the field.

We asked authors Micah Berman and Scott Burris about the textbook’s new approach to teaching and learning public health law.

CPHLR: There are several other public health law textbooks out there, why was it important for you to write this one?

SB + MB: Two main reasons. First, most of the textbooks out there are geared only toward law students. This one is designed to be used by law students, public health students, medical and nursing students, social work students, and any other graduate students (or advanced undergraduates) interested in studying public health law.  On a day-to-day basis, most public health work is done by non-lawyers, but despite the fact that much of public health practice revolves around law, public health law is too rarely taught in public health (and other graduate) schools. Ideally, the book is designed to be used in classes that include both law students and other graduate students – like the interdisciplinary classes that we each teach at our institutions.

Second, all of the existing public health law textbooks focus almost exclusively on legal doctrine (e.g., the First Amendment and preemption). While understanding these legal doctrines is important, it’s equally important to understand the processes by which public health laws are developed, advocated for, implemented, enforced, and evaluated. Our book is built around the Five Essential Public Health Law Services, which address all of these parts of law’s (or potential law’s) lifespan.

CPHLR: The book is marketed as a “transdisciplinary approach,” what does that entail?

SB + MB: The Transdisciplinary Approach to Public Health Law was developed through a partnership between the CDC, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, ChangeLab Solutions, the Network for Public Health Law, and the Public Health Law Research Program. It is based on the idea that lawyers are no longer just counselors or litigators for public health agencies. Rather, public health policy change comes about when lawyers, scientists, public health practitioners, and others work collaboratively to develop, advocate for, implement, and evaluate evidence-based legal reforms and interventions to prevent disease and reduce injuries. The transdisciplinary model of practice and research is not merely lawyers and scientists pursuing the same public health goals in an independent or interactive manner.  Rather, in a transdisciplinary model, professionals from different fields learn enough about each other’s disciplines to truly integrate their theories, methods, and tools.

CPHLR: Why was it important to you to include a chapter on policy surveillance and legal epidemiology?

SB + MB: Too often public health laws are passed and we just hope that they will be effective.  That is problematic for two reasons. First, the law may not be effective, but you’ll never know unless you evaluate it. Without evaluation, we may think that we’ve solved a problem, but we may have actually made it worse or made no difference. Policy surveillance and legal epidemiology allow us to establish what works: policy surveillance creates the legal data, and legal epidemiology offers many strategies for evaluating implementation and impact. If we want public health practice to be evidence-based, then we need to have a body of research to show what legal interventions are effective, and which are not. Such evidence can encourage new communities to implement effective public health policies. Policy surveillance is also important for advocacy and diffusion of legal ideas that work by making the state of and trends in key laws visible to all the stakeholders in policy making.

CPHLR: Public health law itself is not new, but legal epidemiology is a relatively young field; how do you hope the textbook will help shape the next generation of practitioners?

SB + MB: As both lawmakers and courts increasingly demand scientific evidence of a law’s (or potential law’s) effectiveness, familiarity with the tool of legal epidemiology is crucial for anyone entering the field of public health. Also, legal epidemiology is the epitome of the transdisciplinary approach discussed above. It requires both knowledge of the law and familiarly with the tools of epidemiology. We hope that our book will encourage more schools to foster environments in which transdisciplinary communities of students can be built, and more students will become interested in legal epidemiology.

The New Public Health Law is now available. Learn more at

Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research

Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research

Based at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, the Center for Public Health Law Research supports the widespread adoption of scientific tools and methods for mapping and evaluating the impact of law on health. It works by developing and teaching public health law research and legal epidemiology methods (including legal mapping and policy surveillance); researching laws and policies that improve health, increase access to care, and create or remove barriers to health (e.g., laws or policies that create or remove inequity); and communicating and disseminating evidence to facilitate innovation.

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