Human Rights Advocacy under Attack

One of the world’s most important human rights law firms is now under attack from a government whose leader has, to put it mildly, a mixed record on human rights.  The firm is the Lawyer’s Collective, which has done some of the most important work within India on HIV, LGBT and gender issues.  The firm’s lawyers have also made great contributions internationally. Indira Jaising has served as a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Anand Grover was the UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Health from 2008 to 2014, during which service he issues several fearless reports that helped move the world forward towards an enabling environment for HIV among the most legally marginalized people.

On June 1, the Indian Union Ministry for Home Affairs suspended the firm’s license to receive foreign funding, contending that the Lawyer’s Collective had violated the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. The Lawyer’s Collective faces the prospect of having their license cancelled permanently, which would seriously impact their work. Both the suspension order and the Lawyer’s Collective’s response have been widely reported in the Indian media. Read More

Changing How We Think (and Talk) About Public Health Law

By Scott Burris, JD

Marice Ashe, Donna Levin, Matthew Penn, Michelle Larkin and I have a new piece in the Annual Review of Public Health (also available on SSRN). We set out a “transdisciplinary model of public health law” that encompasses within the core of the field both the traditional public health law practice of lawyers and what we call “legal epidemiology” — all the important public health law functions (from policy design to evaluation) that are typically carried out by people without legal training. I hope you will take a look.

Why this article and a transdisciplinary model? The idea comes out of the experience that the authors have all had trying to promote public health law practice and research. We realized that in spite of the success of the field and its importance to public health, a lot of non-lawyers in public health training, practice and research were uncomfortable with law — even when their work had to do with enforcing it or evaluating its impact.

We realized that we as lawyers were making things worse, by adhering to a traditional view of public health law as purely a practice of lawyers. We found that acknowledging the work of non-lawyers in public health law, conceptualizing key public health law activities in scientific terms, and even borrowing some scientific practices for legal work, were effective ways to change attitudes and improve our impact. Many of us have articles in the pipeline on legal epidemiology, policy surveillance and “the five essential public health law services” that will show the model in action.

I don’t have to tell readers of this blog that public health law is a great field. I hope the concept of transdisciplinary model will help make it a truly integral part of public health.

Read the full article here.

Why Do Refugees Risk the Deadly Boat Crossing to Europe? It’s the Law

By Scott Burris

This morning I heard an NPR story that began, “Why do so many refugees from the Middle East risk the dangerous Mediterranean crossing in rickety boats?”  The answer, in the story, was an account of the miseries of a family stranded in Aleppo.  Why do people risk so much to flee? Because life is so bad where they are.

There is plenty of misery in the war-torn Middle East, but if the question is “why do people flee in dangerous boats run by ruthless smugglers,” NPR did not have the right answer.  Hans Rosling, the Swedish epidemiologist and humanitarian, has offered a better one: the EU regulation that requires airlines that fly in asylum seekers who do not qualify to fly them out again at the airline’s expense. (Watch his video here.) Airlines just won’t allow people without the proper visas to board, even if the law would. Yes, it’s the law that puts people on boats.  Flights from the region’s airports to Europe are cheaper than the deadly boats.  As we are seeing now, many if not most of these refugees qualify for asylum.  EU law does not require asylum seekers to have visas or be granted asylum before they board the plane.  But by placing the economic risk on the airlines, the EU essentially delegates the asylum decision to the most risk averse and least responsible player in the process.

Here’s the math.  The Abdullah Kurdi family of four, whose two children drowned, reportedly paid €2,000 each for the trip, well over $8,000, to get from Turkey to Greece.  On Travelocity today, German Wings had a flight from Istanbul to Berlin with seats at $84.

Building on 20 Years of Success: The Future Role of Law

By Scott Burris, JD

On this, the last day of National Public Health Week 2015, we’re looking forward by looking backward. There is nothing new about using law and policy to promote healthier environments, products and behavior. There is no good future for public health that does not include even more, and more effective, legal interventions.

Evan Anderson and I wrote in 2012 about the legal regulation of health-related behavior over the past half-century. The story we told offered several reasons for unabashed optimism about what law can do for health. The record is clear that law works, and works across a wide range of different health threats. We pointed to CDC lists of Great Public Health Achievements from the last century and the first decade of the 21st.   Every one of them — from high levels of vaccination, through motor vehicle safety and cancer prevention to maternal and child health – could not have been successful without law and policy. Read More

Courts as Ebola Educators

By Scott Burris

News in this afternoon is that a Maine state judge has lifted the quarantine order on nurse Kaci Hickox, saying that she “currently does not show symptoms of Ebola and is therefore not infectious.”

The ruling conforms to the best available scientific evidence and CDC recommendations.  It also shows the importance of judicial review as a check on the exercise of emergency powers. Hearkening back to the many school exclusion cases during the HIV epidemic, I hope it will help reassure a public confused by the gap between what CDC and other experts say is necessary and what some political leaders are doing.  The best way for government to keep our trust in this outbreak is to offer accurate information — and then behave accordingly.

Research Round-Up: New Publications from the PHLR SciVal Experts Community

In honor of last week’s National Public Health Week, we have a lot of fresh, new PHLR. The latest crop of papers from public health law researchers touch on a number of important points and issues including transportation safety, implementation, tobacco control, and media presentation of public health law. Check out Scott Burris’s brief summaries after the jump!

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Evidence in Policy Innovation

In the last few decades, there has been a broad effort to strengthen the use of evidence-based law as a tool for the promotion of population health. There are two major fronts in the campaign, each essential, and both largely successful, though much work also remains. One aims to increase the quantity and quality of empirical research on the health effects of existing policy choices. The other focuses on how best to get such knowledge into action in the form of policy and practice. In a new PHLR Theory Practice and Evidence paper, Evan Anderson and I draw attention to a third front: the formulation of new legal interventions. Though policy experimentation is inevitable, it has been the subject of relatively little systematic study. For proponents of evidence-based public health law, policy experimentation presents a paradox: if a legal intervention is truly innovative, there will not yet be direct evidence of its impact. Yet direct evidence from policy evaluations is never the only source of research knowledge relevant to a policy decision, even under conditions of novelty and uncertainty. And few interventions are truly new in a broad sense; in most instances, similarly designed laws have been deployed before, just not for the same specific purpose.

We use the case of youth sports concussion and Washington’s Lystedt Law as a case study of how even new legal strategies dealing with new problems can be built on evidence. We show  how evidence about the problem lawmakers are addressing, combined with widely-used analytic tools like the Haddon Matrix and an understanding of the generic mechanisms through which law influences behavior and outcomes, can bring existing research knowledge into the crafting of even very innovative legal interventions for newly perceived problems.  While we don’t expect the policy sausage factory to suddenly start looking like a research lab, there’s no question that legislators typically care about getting policy right and want evidence.  The point of our paper is to get the research world to think about ways we can help even when no one has yet studied the specific law at issue.

New PHLR (and George) Papers

Laura Brennan, Ross Brownson and Tracey Orleans have come out with an important paper reviewing the evidence on policy and environmental strategies for reducing childhood obesity. Twenty-four strategies and 2000 published and gray literature documents are covered.  This is a menu of more-or-less evidence backed ideas for intervention.

Sam Harper and colleagues come out with an interesting new argument for primary seat belt laws, based on a disparities analysis. Looking through the lens of education level, they  (well, we, since I am one of the authors) find that, while primary enforcement has a powerful affect at every educational level, the impact is greater on people with less education.  Thus, existing SES differentials in seat belt use could be reduced if all states (finally) went to primary enforcement.

Even kids like paternalism?  Well, that may not be the best interpretation of this next study. Williams and McCartt surveyed New Jersey teenagers about three GDL requirements that are unique to that state: minimum licensing age of 17; application of full GDL rules to beginners younger than 21; and requiring license status decals on vehicle plates of GDL drivers.  84% liked licensing at 17, and 77% approved applying Gthe rules even to older novices.  The decal policy was approved by only 23% — but a PHLR study showed it works, so I say get used to it.

Two new tobacco law studies round out the week’s harvest.  Heikki et al. map the diffusion of health warning regulations since 1966, showing a big impact of the FCTC. Finally, in a paper that may start some arguments, Kevin Callison and Robert Kaestner report that adult smokers may not be as responsive to cigarette taxes as many believe.  They suggest it will take increases on the order of 100% to get a further 5% reduction in smoking rates.  Well, I’m okay with that.

Over on the George side of things, Peter Jacobson and Wendy Parmet have posted a thoughtful response to Larry Gostin’s Bloomberg commentary in the Hastings Center Report.  They are helping us move away from a habitual application of the paternalism critique and reminding us that public health can play in the democracy sandbox pretty well.

Down with Antipaternalism!

As the holidays approach, I have a chance to catch up on reading.  The Sept-Oct issue of the Hastings Center Report had a paper by Larry Gostin on Michael Bloomberg’s health policy career in New York, and I have seen some of a series of responses by other scholars that will appear in due course. With his usual facility, Gostin recounts the story of Bloomberg’s health department and its innovations in policy – it’s a great piece for a health law class.  The piece is also typical Gostin in its framing of the issue of paternalism as a key driver of opposition to many of Bloomberg’s initiatives.  And if it is typical Gostin, it is really representative of our field, since Gostin has both drawn on and helped reinforce a widely held belief that the politics of public health are strongly driven by a tension between individual liberty (inscribed legally in civil rights and culturally in individualism and antipaternalism) and public health.

In this framework, paternalism is a premise, not a hypothesis. Gostin writes, “The societal discomfort with Bloomberg’s agenda is grounded, at its core, in distrust of government influence on how autonomous adults conduct their lives.” He describes how health policy-makers are driven to rely on the harm principle to justify policies by “American antipathy toward paternalism.”  Yet, and this is also typical of the discourse in our field, he also follows the Sunstein-Thaler line that ultimately denies the empirical assumptions upon which anti-paternalist claims depend: “The public health approach rejects the idea that there is such a thing as unfettered free will, recognizing instead that the built environment, social networks, marketing, and a range of situational cues drive complex behaviors.”

Public health law has been stuck here for a while, accepting that public health policy has and always will be subject to the arbitrary dominion of a mass delusion of autonomy.  I think this log-jam is starting to break – and that proponents of effective health laws should be doing all they can to properly discredit and abandon this old trope.  A few signs:

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New Data on Drug Overdose Law

By Scott Burris

Working with Corey Davis of the Network for Public Health Law, PHLR has completed and posted updated longitudinal datasets of state laws authorizing naloxone distribution and creating “Good Samaritan” immunity for callers reporting a drug overdose to 911. Take a look at

On the theory that an image beats a few hundred words, here’s a report on the state of the law: