Law Professors Organize

By Scott Burris

Over the past fifty years, law has become an important tool for promoting public health – and a site of dramatic social and political contests.  Public health law has been an integral part of “great achievements” in public health that have saved, or enhanced, millions of lives. Increasingly, however, the public health interventions – and the legal theories and values they stand on – have been under steady, sustained and systematic attack.   Further progress is imperiled, and past gains may be rolled back.

Over the Summer, Wendy Parmet and Leo Beletsky of Northeastern University convened a one-day workshop in Boston, called Advancing Public Health through the Law: The Role of Legal Academics.  A lot of smart people in and out of legal academia participated, and it did not take long to get a consensus  that legal academics, alone and in partnership with practitioners in law and public health, need to be more effective and better coordinated in our work.  Part of this has to do with better understanding the forces lined up against effective health laws, and there was enthusiasm for the idea of moving forward on a coordinated strategy to increase our influence and effectiveness as public health law scholars and advocates.

It is vital to be strategic in the face of well-funded and well-organized political efforts to turn back interventions that can save lives. But our long-term success also requires some looking inward.  As people working in public health, we have to ask whether our division into unconnected silos – er, I mean, pillars of excellence – is sustainable. Are tobacco advocates, and harm reductionists, and obesity fighters cooperating, or competing?  As a broad movement, are we effectively focusing our limited resources, or allowing ourselves to be divided and conquered?  Are we right to assume that the public trusts us and accepts our mission as legitimate?  Is our language, our framing, getting tired?

Read More

Evidence for Policy: Nice If You Can Get It

By Scott Burris

Sometimes researchers can tell policy makers pretty confidently what public health law interventions really make a difference. The PHLR website has more than 50 Evidence Briefs that summarize the results of systematic reviews of the evidence on interventional public health laws conducted by the Cochrane and Campbell Collaboratives, and the Community Guide to Preventive Services.. We know, for example, that  there is significant evidence to support water fluoridation as an effective public health intervention aimed at reducing tooth decay (Portland, are you listening?). We know that workplace smoking bans prevent heart attacks. For laws like these, we have numerous high quality studies, sometimes even experiments, that show whether or not the law is effective.

Unfortunately, problems don’t wait for evidence, and usually by the time there is a substantial body of evidence in place to review, most states have already made their policy decisions. What do we do when there is a problem that demands action, but there is no clearly effective legal action to take?

One of these days we’ll blog about what we think should happen. But for now, we can look at what often does happen. Usually, it resembles the fads we see in fashion: One state tries something, and other states follow, until a lot of states are doing something that might, or might not be working.

Read More

The Evolution of Public Health Law Research

By: Scott Burris, JD

Law has been used to protect and promote public health from the early days of European colonization of North America. Quarantine statutes and orders are reported from the mid-17th century. The 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, where our office is based, inspired the federal government’s first public health statute, authorizing relocation of the capital in the event of an outbreak.

By the mid-19th century, sanitarians like Boston’s own Lemuel Shattuck were articulating the idea that a considerable proportion of death and illness was preventable, and arguing that it was moral, feasible, and economical for the state to do the preventing. Law was a primary tool for prevention, and throughout the 19th century, and into the early twentieth, the extent and limitations of federal, state and local public health authority was litigated, debated in legislatures and defined in voluminous treatises by scholars like Freund, Tiedeman and Tobey.

And then, it got quiet.

Read More

Introducing Our Collaborators

Bill of Health is lucky to have lined up a few really great institutional collaborators.  Let’s meet them:

First, HealthLawProf Blog will be cross-posting its material on our site, helping Bill of Health achieve its goal of becoming a true one-stop-shop for news and commentary in health law, biotech, and bioethics.

Second, the folks at the Public Health Law Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (headed up by Temple’s Scott Burris) will be providing regular updates on their great work in empirical public health law.  You can also follow them on:

And last but not least, Yale’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, which puts together a stellar weekly round-up of recently published bioethics scholarship, op-eds, news items, etc. will be allowing us to post a version of that round-up here.  Check for it on Friday afternoons.

If you’re interested in pursuing an institutional collaboration, please let us know.  Contact Holly Fernandez Lynch, hlynch at law dot harvard dot edu.