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?
We can also profitably cross-examine ourselves as law professors. You don’t have to agree with everything Brian Tamanaha says to agree that there are problems with the law school enterprise. And I personally think he goes a little easy on legal scholarship. Are we really sufficiently engaged, and sufficiently effective, as a group, in bringing important ideas into the policy debate? Like law professors in other fields, we would do well to ask whether we are making sufficient use of the incredible resources society has given us – by which I mean the excellent hard-money salaries and the academic freedom to pursue whatever research topics we choose.
So last Summer’s meeting, funded by the Public Health Law Research Program, was a good start. You can read the report here.