Better evaluation could unlock benefits of public health law

Australia has an excellent track record in effective public health law interventions, such as plain packaging of cigarettes, gun laws, food labelling and mandatory seatbelt laws, but there is great untouched potential to use the law to combat the chronic disease epidemic, a seminar on public health law has heard.

PhD candidate Jan Muhunthan called for greater emphasis on the measurement and evaluation of public health law so it could play a more prominent role in decision making.

“At national, state and territory and local government levels, we need to redesign public policies that are failing our nation’s health,” she told the seminar, co-hosted by The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre and The George Institute for Global Health.

“Debates about health all too often focus on healthcare, not the social determinants of health,” Ms Muhunthan said. “We need significant investment targeted to broad areas that affect our health, such as poverty, inequality, housing, transport and education, and the law can play a part in all of these.”

She said barriers to the generation of public law health research in Australia included a lack of funding, a lack of education opportunities for researchers in this field, and a disconnect between public health policy and law experts and key decision makers in health and other sectors.

Ms Muhunthan is undertaking a Prevention Centre-funded PhD on the role of public health law in preventing chronic disease. Her research has already identified many unintended impacts associated with liquor control laws.

Ms Muhunthan’s project is evaluating the impact of public health law by investigating case law on the regulation of alcohol availability in Australia, through systematic reviews into the effectiveness of Indigenous community-led alcohol restrictions, and through qualitative methods to gauge the effectiveness of public health law interventions.

Also speaking at the seminar was leading US law and public health expert, Professor Scott Burris, Professor of Law and Public Health at Temple University, Philadelphia. Professor Burris spoke of the importance of collaboration between the legal and public health communities, and of the value of lawyers understanding and adopting public health methods of inquiry to produce rigorous, policy-relevant research.

Every year, legislatures in the US pass more than 1000 health laws, plus thousands of other laws that also impact health, but there is virtually no research investigating whether these laws achieve positive health outcomes, said Professor Burris.

“We need to think of the law as a treatment. We wouldn’t tolerate that gap in research for a pharmaceutical,” he said.

“It’s purely a false belief that legal practices can’t be measured like any other social phenomenon,” he said. “We needed to treat law as a normal human behaviour that could be studied by scientific means.”

Read more about Professor Burris’s speech on The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre website.