By Scott Burris
Law has been an extremely effective mode of public health intervention in the last thirty years, which means that proponents of its use have won more than a few tough political battles. Nonetheless, it is hard to escape the fact that, in recent years, the public health side has been getting killed wherever law is made. The First Amendment turns out to create a right to mine prescription records for data (Sorrell v. IMS Health), advertise liquor prices (44 Liquormart), keep warning labels off cigarette packs (RJ Reynolds v FDA) – even operate a tattoo parlor in a city that lacks the resources to regulate its safety. With the Heller case, the strictest forms of gun control were taken off the table, and there is a lot more litigation ahead to define what can be done. The ACA case raises the possibility of future limits on federal regulation via the spending clause. In the latest and most chilling development, the DC Circuit panel in the FDA label case laid the foundation for questioning whether there is even a rational basis for regulations aimed at discouraging people from using “lawful” but dangerous products:
We are skeptical that the government can assert a substantial interest in discouraging consumers from purchasing a lawful product, even one that has been conclusively linked to adverse health consequences.
Things aren’t a whole lot better over in the elected parts of government. State and local health departments have been experiencing steady budget strangulation ever since (and even before) the Great Recession. The federal life-line, the Prevention and Public Health Fund, was raided once already by Congress, and remains a tempting target. Using the money we do get to promote legal interventions for health is under attack: with the help or acquiescence of Democrats, the long-standing restriction on lobbying in the HHS appropriations bill was changed. Despite legal analysis concluding that the old lines – educating public and policy makers is OK, just don’t push for specific legislation – are still in place, broad language about “future” legislation and threatening letters from an outfit called “Cause of Action” has reportedly chilled a lot of funding recipients.
For many of us, the succession of reverses and cuts looks like public health as usual: public health is usually the underdog whatever the topic. On the other hand, there are arguments that things are different now, ranging from the simple claim that the cuts have now reached bone to the belief that there is an active effort to put the “new public health” entirely out of business. So what is happening?