Designing policy interventions in the context of obesity—what we can learn from the effects of cigarette taxes on children’s health

By Diana Winters (@diana3000)
[Cross-posted at HealthLawProf Blog.]

An important new study shows that a child will most likely be healthier throughout her childhood if a tax on cigarettes is in place when her mother is pregnant. Economist David Simon (who, full disclosure, is my cousin) at the University of Connecticut has extended the findings that the health of infants can be improved by a policy intervention that improves the in-utero environment, and has provided strong evidence that cigarette taxes can improve the health of children into their teen years.

It is well established that smoking during pregnancy can harm a developing fetus. In his paper, Simon cites studies that demonstrate the negative effects of taxes on cigarette smoking, and in a second paper, he collects and reviews the literature that shows that pregnant women are responsive to cigarette taxes. Simon uses a restricted-use version of the National Health Interview Survey, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has used since 1957 to collect data on the health of the U.S. population, to examine medium-term childhood health outcomes for individuals exposed to a cigarette tax in-utero.  Continue reading

Weight Status: When Ignorance May Not Be Bliss

By Deborah Cho

A recent data brief summarizing a national survey spanning from 2005-2012 on the perception of weight status in U.S. children and adolescents highlights one major finding — many children and adolescents who are overweight or obese don’t know it.  Key findings were that about 81% of overweight (defined as having age- and sex-specific BMI greater than or equal to the 85th and less than the 95th percentile of the 2000 CDC growth chart) boys and 71% of overweight girls believe they are about the right weight.  Additionally, nearly 48% of obese (defined as having age- and sex-specific BMI greater than or equal to the 95th percentile of the 2000 CDC growth chart) boys and 36% of obese girls consider themselves to be about the right weight.  

As an article on the NPR blog noted, “Kids can be cruel, especially about weight. So you might think overweight or obese children know all too well that they’re heavy.”  But it seems that this is not the case, at least according to the survey.  Furthermore, not only do overweight or obese children generally seem to be unaware of their weight status, but the misperception rate appears to be higher in those children and adolescents whose families have a lower income-to-poverty ratio.  Non-Hispanic black and Mexican American children and adolescents were also found to have higher rates of misperception than Non-Hispanic white children and adolescents.

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McCullen and New York Statewide Coalition: The Erosion of Public Health as a Legal Norm

At first glance, last Thursday’s decisions by the Supreme Court in McCullen v. Coakley and the New York Court of Appeals in New York Statewide Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce v. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, have little in common. McCullen, which struck down a Massachusetts law establishing a 35 foot buffer zone around reproductive health clinics, was a First Amendment case that dealt with the always contentious issue of abortion. In contrast, N.Y. Statewide Coalition, which upheld a lower court decision striking down a regulation of the New York City Board of Health barring the sale of large portions of sugary soda, was decided on state administrative law grounds, with the court finding that the Board exceeded its authority.

On closer inspection, however, the two cases share several features in addition to their date of decision. One is the failure to give substantial weight to the state’s interest in protection health. In his opinion for the Court in McCullen, Chief Justice Roberts accepted that the buffer zone law was content neutral and therefore not subject to strict scrutiny. Nevertheless, a unanimous Court held that the Massachusetts law was not narrowly tailored to serve the government interests of protecting public safety and access to health care. In reaching this decision, the Court focused on the “toll” that the buffer zone placed on the abortion opponents who tried to dissuade woman from having abortion, rather than the impact of the lack of such a zone on woman seeking reproductive health care. Equally important, the Court showed no willingness to defer to the state’s contentions that alternative regulatory approaches had proved unsatisfactory. Rather the Court insisted that given “the vital First Amendment interests at stake, it is not enough for Massachusetts simply to say that other approaches have not worked.”

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China Issues 2014-2020 Development Blueprint on Food and Nutrition

By Ching-Fu Lin

China’s highest executive organ, the State Council, put out the Food and Nutrition Development Outline 2014-2020 (the Outline) in February of 2014.  The Outline was jointly drafted by China’s Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) and National Health and Family Planning Commission.  The Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Science and Technology, and National Development and Reform Commission also participated in its development.  Based on a review of China’s growth and problems in food and nutrition, the Outline sets a seven-year plan that highlights basic policy objectives.  The areas of focus are food supply systems, nutrition intake and balance (especially amongst population sub-groups), regulatory and surveillance mechanisms, industry development, research, and education.

The Outline lays out its “guiding strategy” that the government should regard the effective supply of food, balanced nutritional profile, and production-consumption coordination as its chief missions.  To execute these missions, the government identifies certain key products (quality agricultural products, convenient processed foods, and dairy and soy foods), key areas (poor, rural, and newly urbanized areas), and key population groups (the pregnant women and nursing mothers, infants and children, and the elderly) as starting points to promote better food and nutrition development patterns.  Such points are further elaborated in the document.  The guiding strategy ultimately aims to improve public health and a well-off society.

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Capsule Endoscopy Instead of Colonoscopy? The FDA Approves the PillCam COLON

By Jonathan J. Darrow

In January, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the PillCam COLON 2 as a minimally-invasive means of viewing the colon, a development that is sure to be welcomed by U.S. patients who currently undergo an estimated 14 million colonoscopies each year.  While the approval represents a major step forward, the PillCam is unlikely to supplant current procedures just yet.

The colon has traditionally been examined via optical colonoscopy, a procedure perceived by many to be uncomfortable and embarrassing that involves insertion through the rectum of a 5-6 foot long flexible tube as part of an examination that can take 30 to 60 minutes. Air must be pumped in through the rectum in a process called “insufflation.” Sedatives and pain medication are generally used to help relieve discomfort. In contrast, the PillCam COLON contains a power source, light source, and two tiny cameras encapsulated in an easy-to-swallow pill that produces no pain or even sensation as it moves through the colon. Reflecting the absence of discomfort, one report from a clinical researcher noted that a few patients have insisted on X-rays to confirm that the device had passed in their stool (FDA Consumer). The pill takes about 30,000 pictures before passing naturally from the body, which usually occurs before the end of its 10-hour battery life.

The safety record of capsule endoscopy, the category to which the PillCam COLON belongs, so far appears to compare favorably with the alternatives. Capsule endoscopy may be less likely to produce accidental colonic perforations or other serious complications, which occur in less than 1% of traditional colonoscopies despite the best efforts of the treating physician. Tears of the colon wall can in turn “rapidly progress to peritonitis and sepsis, carrying significant morbidity and mortality.” (Adam J. Hanson et al., Laparoscopic Repair of Colonoscopic Perforations: Indications and Guidelines, 11 J. Gastrointest. Surg. 655, 655 (2007)). Splenic injury or other serious complications also occur rarely with optical colonoscopies. Unlike “virtual colonoscopy,” which uses computed tomography (CT) to peer into the body, capsule endoscopy does not involve bombarding the body with radiation. A leading study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported no serious adverse events among 320 subjects given the PillCam COLON, and concluded that use of the device was “a safe method of visualizing the colonic mucosa through colon fluids without the need for sedation or insufflation.” Continue reading

How Coke might help cure obesity

Coca-Cola has an interesting symbolic presence the world of public health.

Its delivery system is the envy of vaccine programs: the committed global health workers who’ve trekked for days through harsh and inhospitable lands to reach even the most distant communities are likely to find a refreshing, cold Coke already waiting for them at the village store.

For those who focus on non-communicable chronic diseases (NCD), (regular) Coke is the scourge that is providing the extra calories that fuels the obesity epidemic. Many experts believe that eliminating the calories contained in a single, 16oz serving of regular Coke from daily diet would be more than enough to revert the trend towards rising obesity and return average weight in the population back to where it was 30 years ago. 

But the symbolic presence of Coca-Cola in US culture and politics is perhaps even more interesting, and the resulting dynamics could have some unexpected consequences in terms of population health.

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TOMORROW: Second Annual Health Law Year in P/Review

Please join us for our second annual Health Law Year in P/Review event, co-sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the New England Journal of Medicine. The conference will be held in Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East C at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 31, 2014, from 8:30am to 5:00pm.

This year we will welcome experts discussing major developments over the past year and what to watch out for in areas including the Affordable Care Act, medical malpractice, FDA regulatory policy, abortion, contraception, intellectual property in the life sciences industry, public health policy, and human subjects research.

The full agenda is available on our website. Speakers are:  Continue reading

1/31: Second Annual Health Law Year in P/Review

Please join us for our second annual Health Law Year in P/Review event, co-sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the New England Journal of Medicine. The conference will be held in Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East C at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 31, 2014, from 8:30am to 5:00pm.

This year we will welcome experts discussing major developments over the past year and what to watch out for in areas including the Affordable Care Act, medical malpractice, FDA regulatory policy, abortion, contraception, intellectual property in the life sciences industry, public health policy, and human subjects research.

The full agenda is available on our website. Speakers are:  Continue reading

1/31: Second Annual Health Law Year in P/Review conference

Please join us for our second annual Health Law Year in P/Review event, co-sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the New England Journal of Medicine. The conference will be held in Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East C at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 31, 2014, from 8:30am to 5:00pm.

This year we will welcome experts discussing major developments over the past year and what to watch out for in areas including the Affordable Care Act, medical malpractice, FDA regulatory policy, abortion, contraception, intellectual property in the life sciences industry, public health policy, and human subjects research.

The full agenda is available on our website. Speakers are:  Continue reading

DUE MONDAY: Call for Abstracts for Petrie-Flom Center 2014 Annual Conference

The Petrie-Flom Center invites abstracts for its 2014 Annual Conference: “Behavioral Economics, Law, and Health Policy.” The conference will be held at Harvard Law School on May 2 and 3, 2014, and seeks to address the following questions:

  • Are there features unique to health and health care that prevent individuals, groups, and policymakers from making the best decisions?  What is a “best” decision, i.e., whose perspective should be paramount?
  • What types of barriers exist to rational decision making in the health care context, and what does rational decision making look like here?
  • Is exploitation of framing effects, default rules, nudges, and other elements of choice architecture appropriate when it comes to human health, or is this an area where pure autonomy should reign – or perhaps strong paternalism is needed? Is health policy special?
  • What should policymakers do when there is conflict between outcomes that might be good for individuals but not society more generally, and vice versa?  Where should the nudges push?
  • Which areas of health law, bioethics, and biotechnology policy are most amenable or resistant to manipulation of choice architecture?  When nudges are not plausible, what is the best way to overcome bounded rationality?
  • When might behavioral economics lead to the wrong results for health law, bioethics, and biotechnology policy?
  • How can manipulations of choice architecture be best evaluated empirically, and what ethical concerns might such research raise?
  • What are the most interesting or compelling health law, bioethics, and biotechnology policy nudges we should be thinking about today in the realms of obesity, organ donation, end-of-life care, biospecimen ownership and research, human subjects research, HIV testing, vaccination, health insurance, and other areas?

Please note that this list is not meant to be at all exhaustive; we hope to receive papers related to the conference’s general theme but not specifically listed here.

Calls for abstracts are due by December 2, 2013.

For a full conference description, including the call for abstracts and registration information, please visit our website.

DUE IN ONE WEEK: Call for Abstracts for Petrie-Flom Center 2014 Annual Conference

The Petrie-Flom Center invites abstracts for its 2014 Annual Conference: “Behavioral Economics, Law, and Health Policy.” The conference will be held at Harvard Law School on May 2 and 3, 2014, and seeks to address the following questions:

  • Are there features unique to health and health care that prevent individuals, groups, and policymakers from making the best decisions?  What is a “best” decision, i.e., whose perspective should be paramount?
  • What types of barriers exist to rational decision making in the health care context, and what does rational decision making look like here?
  • Is exploitation of framing effects, default rules, nudges, and other elements of choice architecture appropriate when it comes to human health, or is this an area where pure autonomy should reign – or perhaps strong paternalism is needed? Is health policy special?
  • What should policymakers do when there is conflict between outcomes that might be good for individuals but not society more generally, and vice versa?  Where should the nudges push?
  • Which areas of health law, bioethics, and biotechnology policy are most amenable or resistant to manipulation of choice architecture?  When nudges are not plausible, what is the best way to overcome bounded rationality?
  • When might behavioral economics lead to the wrong results for health law, bioethics, and biotechnology policy?
  • How can manipulations of choice architecture be best evaluated empirically, and what ethical concerns might such research raise?
  • What are the most interesting or compelling health law, bioethics, and biotechnology policy nudges we should be thinking about today in the realms of obesity, organ donation, end-of-life care, biospecimen ownership and research, human subjects research, HIV testing, vaccination, health insurance, and other areas?

Please note that this list is not meant to be at all exhaustive; we hope to receive papers related to the conference’s general theme but not specifically listed here.

Abstracts are due by December 2, 2013.

For a full conference description, including the call for abstracts and registration information, please visit our website.

Call for Abstracts, Petrie-Flom Center 2014 Annual Conference

The Petrie-Flom Center invites abstracts for its 2014 Annual Conference: “Behavioral Economics, Law, and Health Policy.” The conference will be held at Harvard Law School on May 2 and 3, 2014, and seeks to address the following questions:

  • Are there features unique to health and health care that prevent individuals, groups, and policymakers from making the best decisions?  What is a “best” decision, i.e., whose perspective should be paramount?
  • What types of barriers exist to rational decision making in the health care context, and what does rational decision making look like here?
  • Is exploitation of framing effects, default rules, nudges, and other elements of choice architecture appropriate when it comes to human health, or is this an area where pure autonomy should reign – or perhaps strong paternalism is needed? Is health policy special?
  • What should policymakers do when there is conflict between outcomes that might be good for individuals but not society more generally, and vice versa?  Where should the nudges push?
  • Which areas of health law, bioethics, and biotechnology policy are most amenable or resistant to manipulation of choice architecture?  When nudges are not plausible, what is the best way to overcome bounded rationality?
  • When might behavioral economics lead to the wrong results for health law, bioethics, and biotechnology policy?
  • How can manipulations of choice architecture be best evaluated empirically, and what ethical concerns might such research raise?
  • What are the most interesting or compelling health law, bioethics, and biotechnology policy nudges we should be thinking about today in the realms of obesity, organ donation, end-of-life care, biospecimen ownership and research, human subjects research, HIV testing, vaccination, health insurance, and other areas?

Please note that this list is not meant to be at all exhaustive; we hope to receive papers related to the conference’s general theme but not specifically listed here.

Abstracts are due by December 2, 2013.

For a full conference description, including the call for abstracts and registration information, please visit our website.

Popular Distrust of Health Science: A Crowdsourced Solution

Benjamin Waterhouse's GraveEnjoying the fall foliage in Mt. Auburn Cemetery yesterday, I came across this marker for Benjamin Waterhouse.  In the overwrought language that is appropriate on a grave marker:  “In 1800 he introduced to the new world the blessing of vaccination.  Overcame popular prejudice and distrust by testing it on his own children and thus established a title to the gratitude of future generations.”

No less today, there seems to be plenty of popular distrust of elite science.  (And it doesn’t help that so much of contemporary science is infected by conflicts of interest.)  Self-experimentation does have a long venerable history, which has recently become more prominent in the quantified self movement.  (I’m not sure about experimenting on my kid though.)

Tomorrow, I’m heading to NYC to make a pitch to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Fund, for major funding to launch a new project that would create a platform for robust, randomized experiments of lifestyle interventions (think: migraine management, diets, exercise regimens, nutritional supplements) for which there is virtually no FDA oversight and thus no regulatory imperative for rigorous scientific investigations.  Nonetheless, these lifestyle factors are the primary drivers of health and healthcare costs.  By crowdsourcing these sorts of experiments in an sound ethical framework robust against institutional corruption, I hope to develop gold-standard scientific knowledge with huge samples, but also build public engagement, public understanding, and public trust of health science.

The crowd uses Wikipedia to organize knowledge, and Indiegogo to invest in new health devices.  The crowd needs a platform to create knowledge too, especially through randomized interventions, which have the potential to actually change behaviors for the better and eliminate the confounding factors that undermine observational studies.

So, wish me luck in NYC tomorrow:   http://bit.ly/pioneerpitch

Conference Announcement and Call for Abstracts, 2014 Petrie-Flom Center Annual Conference

The Petrie-Flom Center has released the description and call for abstracts for its 2014 Annual Conference: “Behavioral Economics, Law, and Health Policy.” The conference will be held at Harvard Law School on May 2 and 3, 2014, and seeks to address the following questions:

  • Are there features unique to health and health care that prevent individuals, groups, and policymakers from making the best decisions?  What is a “best” decision, i.e., whose perspective should be paramount?
  • What types of barriers exist to rational decision making in the health care context, and what does rational decision making look like here?
  • Is exploitation of framing effects, default rules, nudges, and other elements of choice architecture appropriate when it comes to human health, or is this an area where pure autonomy should reign – or perhaps strong paternalism is needed? Is health policy special?
  • What should policymakers do when there is conflict between outcomes that might be good for individuals but not society more generally, and vice versa?  Where should the nudges push?
  • Which areas of health law, bioethics, and biotechnology policy are most amenable or resistant to manipulation of choice architecture?  When nudges are not plausible, what is the best way to overcome bounded rationality?
  • When might behavioral economics lead to the wrong results for health law, bioethics, and biotechnology policy?
  • How can manipulations of choice architecture be best evaluated empirically, and what ethical concerns might such research raise?
  • What are the most interesting or compelling health law, bioethics, and biotechnology policy nudges we should be thinking about today in the realms of obesity, organ donation, end-of-life care, biospecimen ownership and research, human subjects research, HIV testing, vaccination, health insurance, and other areas?

Please note that this list is not meant to be at all exhaustive; we hope to receive papers related to the conference’s general theme but not specifically listed here.

Abstracts are due by December 2, 2013.

For a full conference description, including the call for abstracts and registration information, please visit our website.

My L.A. Times Op-Ed: In Defense of the Evidence-Based Nudge

The op-ed, which will appear in tomorrow’s print edition, is online here. It’s co-authored with Christopher Chabris (who happens to be my husband). Here—where I’m writing only for myself—I thought I’d say a bit about what motivated us and elaborate on a few points whose force may have been blunted by the process of condensing our thougts into our allottted 1,000 words.

The news hook for the article was an August memo leaked to Fox News in which the Obama administration announced that it is looking to hire behavioral scientists to help shape policy. Notwithstanding that the explicit model for this initiative is the U.K.’s “Behavioral Insights Team,” formed in 2010 by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, in the U.S., some on the right went completely off the rails about the Obama announcement.

A typical reaction was from Fox News’s Monica Crowley, who described the initiative as “really frightening,” “insane,” “outrageous,” “unconstitutional,” “an Orwellian horror show”—and all of the aforementioned mostly because, so far as I can tell, she believes that nudges constitute a form of “psychological warfare” akin to “what our military does to our enemies.” There are certainly legitimate criticisms of nudges to be made by both the right and the left, but that they are a form of Communist mind control is not among them. (For starters, even if nudges did rely on something like subliminal messages, those messages have been shown to have no effect on consumer behavior, much to the chagrin of marketers.)

The impetus for our piece, then, was to disabuse the Crowleys of the world (or at least that portion of them who are open to persuasion on this matter) of that notion, and then to offer some affirmative reasons why conservatives and libertarians should embrace the nudge (its preservation of all options in the choice set; its ability to incentivize personal responsibility; its efficiency), especially relative to its often perfectly viable alternative: the shove. (To that end, the piece was originally intended for a periodical with a right-of-center audience but wound up in the L.A. Times, where some of it may admittedly amount to preaching to the choir.)

In making our case…

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“Mountain Dew Mouth:” A Critical Opportunity for Public Health Law

By Scott Burris

Last week, the American Journal of Public Health published a PHLR paper by Michelle Mello and colleagues calling for our field to identfy “critical opportunities” for public health law. Critical Opportunities are legal interventions that target important public health problems.  They may have a strong evidence base but be underutilized (like alcohol taxes that keep up with inflation). They may be ideas that appear to be working in practice, and have a plausible mechanism of effect, even if our evidence base still consists of early studies or reports from practice (like distributing naloxone to opioid users and their friends to reduce overdose death). And they may be innovations that are plausible because of how they appear to relate to the problem or because they are similar in mechanism to other legal interventions that have been proven to work (like restricting sales of single cigars).  The bottom line is that we can do a better job spreading the word about legal interventions that work and that policy makers and the public can get behind in states and localities around the country.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has helped get the idea moving by supporting a series of videos in which public health lawyers, practitioners and researchers pitch their ideas for critical opportunities.  These are often done, like a Ted Talk, at meetings, and one of the audience favorites is Dana Singer’s pitch for action to deal with “Mountain Dew Mouth,” a term gaining in traction to name the devastating consequences of heavy consumption of sugary beverages, especially those with critic acid.  The issue is on the federal agenda as part of the debate about food stamps.  It’s a hard one: public health people see the terrible consequences of these products and think that ending the federal “subsidy” for them might reduce harm; SNAP advocates don’t like the idea of anyone telling poor people what to eat and drink; industry, well, you can guess. State and local beverage taxes are another option, and we know that taxes can reduce consumption of even addictive products.

NPR has a story on the problem and some of the solutions this week.  I’m glad to see more attention to this problem, because poor dental health can send anyone’s life on a harder course, and is a very big problem in Appalachia. If you don’t believe me, or even NPR, read Priscilla Harris’s paper and watch Dana’s critical ops video.

An Apple A Day . . . the Doctor’s Prescriptions Say?

As public health concerns over obesity and diabetes continue to rise, physicians, public health organizations, and medical educators are thinking out of the box — and into the kitchen and grocery store.  Two stories done by NPR this week feature programs aimed to increase physician influence in patient dietary choices.  The first article describes Wholesome Wave, a program in which a physician writes a “prescription” for fruits and vegetables in the form of a voucher for overweight or diabetic children (and their families).  The second article reports on a collaboration between Tulane University School of Medicine and Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts.  The hope for the two schools is for both groups of students to learn more about nutrition.

Hearing these two stories reminded me of work I did as a student at the Harvard Legal Services Center, working with the Mississippi Food Policy Council to get food stamps accepted at farmers’ markets and improve access to fruits and vegetables.  Most would agree (including Michelle Obama) that providing access to fruits and vegetables in “food deserts” is a laudable goal, but I’m struck by the way in which “prescriptions” for healthy foods versus providing access to healthy food changes the level of autonomy patients have in choosing what they eat.

Couple programs like Wholesome Wave with the ACA’s increased incentives for wellness programs, and I wonder how much a doctor, employer, or insurance plan may dictate consuming that one apple (or bunch of kale) per day.  As Professor Matt Lamkin described in his work last year, some employer insurance plans contain high deductibles ($4,400 in the example he describes) that are much lower ($400) if a wellness plan is followed, which often includes following a doctor’s recommendations.  In the example Lamkin uses, a patient must choose between continuing unpleasant chemotherapy or paying thousands dollars more to satisfy the obligations of a higher deductible.  What if patients want to toss out a doctor’s “prescription” for kale and grab a KitKat instead?

While combating obesity and diabetes is of tantamount importance, how much outside influence over what we eat (or what our children eat) is too much influence?   I’m not sure where I come down on this issue, but it gives those of us simultaneously concerned with public health and patient autonomy something to chew on . . .

AALS Section on Law, Medicine & Health Care Call for Papers

2014 Annual Meeting Section Panel

Saturday, January 4, 2014, 2:00–3:45 p.m.

 Sustainability and Health

This panel will explore the effects of the environment on health in western nations and the role that sustainability initiatives play with regard to wellness. The panel will be interdisciplinary, broadly spanning topics in health, environmental, and animal law and policy as well as public health, land use, and urban planning. Possible topics include: the effects of urban planning on food access and obesity, the consequences of factory farming for human health, the effects of local and sustainable food movements on human health, the health impacts of environmental laws, the environmental impacts of health laws, and the link between ground water and air pollution and illness.

Interested speakers should submit an abstract of up to 300 words electronically by August 31, 2013 to: Ani B. Satz, Chair-Elect, AALS Section on Law, Medicine & Health Care,  asatz at law.emory.edu. Selected speakers will have the option of publishing original papers not committed for publication or in print prior to the Annual Meeting in a special issue of the peer reviewed Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics.

The Big Gulp Wins: Public Health Loses

Public health law took another hit this week. In a unanimous decision (starting on p. 22), the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s earlier ruling striking down the New York City Board of Health’s ban on the sale of large sugary drinks.

In an opinion authored by Justice Dianne T. Renwick, the appeals court ruled that the Board of Health had “failed to act within the bounds of its lawfully delegated authority” in promulgating the so-called soda ban. Relying primarily on the Court of Appeals’ decision in Boreali v. Axelrod, the Appellate Division concluded that the soda ban was unlawful because 1) in framing the regulation, the board took into account factors other than public health; 2) the regulation was not an act of interstitial rule making; 3) the regulation concerned an issue that the legislature had considered and had failed to reach a decision; and 4) the regulations did not require expertise in the field of public health.

Although the Appeals Court did not repeat the trial court’s spurious suggestion that the board’s powers were greater when applied to infectious diseases than chronic diseases, it reiterated the erroneous belief in a binary distinction between public health factors and social and economic factors. In the court’s view, the only factors a health department should consider are “health factors,” which seem to exist totally apart from the social and economic environment. Any consideration of social and economic factors, including as the court noted, consideration of behavioral economics, is outside the scope and beyond the expertise of public health.

This dichotomization of public health and “non-health factors” relies on a false understanding of public health expertise. Continue reading