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.
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.
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: