More than 20 years ago, Chris Reynolds, an Australian pioneer in our understanding of public health law, wrote that: “law is a powerful tool, as potent as any of the medical technologies available to treat disease”, and yet “our understanding of the potential of [public health law]…to help…citizens to lead longer and healthier lives, is not well developed”. (Reynolds, “The Promise of Public Health Law” (1994) 1 JLM 212).
A new report entitled Advancing the Right to Health: the Vital Role of Law, published last week by the World Health Organisation, illustrates just how central law is to our health and wellbeing.
The full report, and each of its chapters, can be downloaded (free of charge) here.
Law a powerful tool for improving public health…everywhere
Countries around the world are using law and legislation across a broad range of areas to protect the health of their populations.
These areas include communicable and contagious diseases, and public health emergencies, maternal and child health, sanitation, water and vector control, the prevention of non-communicable diseases and their risk factors (such as tobacco, alcohol and obesity), prevention of violence and injuries, not to mention essential medicines and universal health coverage, and the regulatory challenges of strengthening health systems.
In each of these areas countries have a great deal to learn from each other.
One benefit of taking a global perspective on public health law is that you get a better sense how the field is buzzing with innovation.
For every jurisdiction where political will is lacking, there’s another that is trying out the new, whether at national, state, or local/city level.
Take legal responses to dietary risks as an example:
- Mexico has imposed a tax on sugary drinks;
- Korea, and Costa Rica have passed legislation to improve the food environment for children, including around schools;
- The United States has passed menu labeling in chain restaurants to support healthier decisions, and effectively banned the use of trans fats; while
- South Africa and Argentina have imposed maximum salt limits for a range of different foods;
- New York City’s Health Board now requires a “high salt” warning label to be placed beside any menu item containing more than 2,300mg of salt. This rule has been enforced since June 2016;
- While Auckland City Council has decided to stop selling sugar-sweetened beverages from vending machines at leisure centres run by the Council. Auckland Council chief executive Stephen Town said: “It just doesn’t fit to sell sugary drinks in places where we are trying to support healthier lifestyles.”
- In some countries, public health agencies have also used their regulatory powers to implement food fortification programs and to remedy nutrient deficiencies, as Nigeria did by requiring the universal iodization of salt.
Even when new legislative proposals are adopted or accepted, they nevertheless illustrate new ways of addressing health risks, and possible future directions.
One example is the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Bill introduced for three consecutive years into California’s legislature, which would have required sugar-sweetened beverages and vending machines to carry the warning: STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”
This proposal has not yet been successful in California. However, San Francisco has passed a local ordinance requiring the same warning, although it is now subject to litigation.
Sydney Health Law…partnering with WHO, IDLO and the O’Neill Institute
Advancing the right to health is the result of a collaboration between Sydney Law School’s health law program, the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, the International Development Law Organisation (IDLO) and the World Health Organisation.
The key message from this report is that there is enormous, untapped potential for governments to use law more effectively to reduce health risks and to make communities healthier and more resilient.
The report provides guidance about issues and requirements to be addressed during the process of developing public health laws, with case studies drawn from countries around the world to illustrate effective law reform practices and critical features of effective public health legislation.
Advancing the Right to Health: The Vital Role of Law was launched at the Graduate Institute in Geneva by Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General, Health Systems and Innovation, WHO. WHO’s feature on the report is available here.
For comments made by Mr David Patterson, Senior Legal Expert – Health, International Development Law Organisation, see here.
For comments made at the launch by Professor Roger Magnusson, principal author of the report, on the connections between public health law and universal health coverage, see the following link: roger-magnusson-comments-at-launch-of-report-advancing-the-right-to-health-16-jan-2017
Are you interested in studying health law? Sydney Law School’s Graduate Diploma in Health Law, and Master of Health Law are open to both lawyers and non-lawyers. For further information, click here. For information on Sydney Health Law, the Centre for Health Law at Sydney Law School, click here.
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