Happy Public Health Week: “We’re Good Enough, We’re Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Us”

By Scott Burris

We may be living in a golden age of group-think. A weekly reminder is poor Paul Krugman railing against the apparently universal belief in America and Europe that we’ve got to cut budgets right now or disaster will strike. He calls this a Zombie idea, a false claim that has been falsified with plenty of stakes in the heart, silver bullets and blows to the head, but will not stay in the grave.

Closer to home for us in public health is the claim that Americans don’t like government rules regulating their behavior and meddling with their preferences.  Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have delivered some solid blows to the idea that paternalism typically messes with solid preferences. As we celebrate Public Health Week, I want to highlight two recent papers that show that Americans, like the children in Mary Poppins, actually like their nannies, who do some pretty great things.

Public Health Law Research has recently posted the manuscript of a paper that Evan Anderson and I have prepared for the Annual Review of Law and Social Science. The paper describes the dramatic rise of law as a tool of public health since the 1960s in five major domains: traffic safety, gun violence, tobacco use, reproductive health and obesity.  These topical stories illustrate both law’s effectiveness and limitations as a public health tool. They also establish its popularity by the most apt of metrics – the willingness of legislators to enact it. The one picture worth a thousand words, below, depicts the rapid adoption of a variety of interventions by state legislatures. (By the way, the five examples also show that public health law research can and does influence the development and refinement of legal interventions over time.)

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Flu Vaccine Mandates for Health Care Workers

According to officials, the worst of this year’s devastating flu season should be over in most parts of the country. But in early January, the flu had hit 47 of 50 states. According to the CDC, a total of 78 influenza-associated pediatric deaths have been reported. Throughout this terrible flu season, there’s been much talk about vaccination mandates for health care workers.

States have started passing legislation regulating health care worker flu vaccination, and an increasing number of hospitals have started implementing policies in attempt to reach the Healthy People 2020 goal of having 90 percent of health care workers vaccinated. Only two-thirds of health care workers were vaccinated against the flu last year. This can leave patients at risk and hospitals short-staffed because of absenteeism.

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PHLR Annual Meeting Post-Mortem

This past week, PHLR hosted 150 researchers, lawyers, public health practitioners and others for our fourth annual meeting. With our theme for the conference in mind, “Driving Legal Innovation,” our attendees shared results of evaluations of laws and regulations, offered up suggestions for new ways to use law to improve health, and attacked head on the issues facing the United States and our public health.

While you wait for more multimedia content, here are a few highlight moments: Continue reading

Need Revenue? Taxes that Promote Health

The Congressional Budget Office just released a comprehensive new report investigating the budgetary effects of a hypothetical increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes and small cigars from, $1.01 to $1.51 in fiscal year 2013. The report’s level of sophistication is unprecedented in its ability to evaluate the effects this change could have. Given the federal budget’s current state of affairs, perhaps the most significant finding from the analysis is that increasing the excise tax on cigarettes could reduce federal budget deficits by a total of about $42 billion through 2021. The value of the health costs and lives saved goes without saying.

Of course, the same could be said for some other products that can be harmful to health.  Alcohol taxes also suppress consumption and reduce the harms associated with drinking, and thanks to inflation and the absence of indexing in state tax laws, they are generally now at real rates we had in the ’50s and ’60s. See Alex Wagenaar’s systematic review for more on the subject.

So, if a majority of Americans are seeing a need for revenue, why not raise it, in part, where the result will also include saved lives and saved health care costs?

The Prescription Drug Abuse and Overdose Crisis: Focus on the Supply Chain

By Scott Burris

There’s so much we still don’t know about the prescription opioid problem. The partial remedies advanced so far reflect this:

  • Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, which in essence define the problem as doctor-shopping patients;
  • treatment guidelines, which define the problem as doctors without expertise; and
  • crackdowns on “pill-mills,” which see the issue as physician corruption. Each of these diagnoses has an element of truth, but not necessarily enough to make the treatments effective.

One huge part of the problem has gotten far too little attention: the pharmaceutical supply chain where all these drugs start and along which they are distributed. Now, John Coleman, a former DEA officer, has given us a thorough and compelling primer on the supply chain, describing it and showing where the pressure points are for action. He is not happy about what he sees: DEA is overwhelmed, and too secretive with its data;  and the distributors are too interested in profits and far too unwilling to police paying customers. But he also sees room for action and even hope. This article is well worth a read if you are interested in the overdose problem and how to solve it:

Coleman, John J. “The Supply Chain of Medicinal Controlled Substances: Addressing the Achilles Heel of Drug Diversion.” Journal of Pain and Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy 26, no. 3 (2012): 233-50.

P.S. — One of the hopeful signs he sees was Florida’s legislation beefing up state-level monitoring and controls. This takes me back to the successful Wisconsin Cancer Pain Initiative in the 70s and 80s, which articulated the Principle of Balance in drug control and demonstrated that it was possible to have good access to pain medicine and effective control. In those days, David Joranson, the state drug controller, worked closely with DEA, using state regulatory authority to shut down docs and pharmacies who were acting outside the law. The possibility of history repeating itself is a ray of sunlight in the cloudy skies of this issue. (If you are interested in the story, here’s one place to start: Joranson, D., and J. L. Dahl. “Achieving Balance in Drug Policy: The Wisconsin Model.” In Advances in Pain Research and Therapy, edited by CS Hill Jr. and WS Fields. 197-204. New York: Raven Press, 1989.)

How About a Clean-Air Shave?

By Scott Burris

Somewhere along the way, environmental law and public health law got separated.  Despite the importance of clean air and water to public health – not to mention parks, recreation, salubrious zoning – the two fields developed independently in the law. That’s changing in a lot of ways, and one very good example is a study proceeding now in New York City.

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NIH + NFL = PHLR

By Scott Burris, JD

The National Football League has given the National Institutes of Health $30 million for research on traumatic brain injury. There is much we don’t know about the causes, effects, prevention and treatment of sports-related brain injury – but that doesn’t mean that we should put all our eggs into the basket of biomedical research. Since Washington state pioneered its youth-sports brain injury prevention model-law in 2009, 40 states have passed laws setting out rules aimed at the problem (We’re tracking these on LawAtlas, the new PHLR policy surveillance portal). Most of these laws work by promoting identification of concussions, regulating the athlete’s return to play, and educating parents and coaches.

To put it another way, the nation, through a majority of its state legislatures, has embarked on a major initiative to reduce sports-related injuries. Tens of millions of people will be affected in some way – athletes, parents and coaches. Limited school-based resources will be consumed to comply with these laws. And, most importantly, people worried about the problem will, to some extent, rely on implementation of these laws to protect student athletes.

If this public health intervention were a drug or a new technique for changing behavior, its efficacy would be rigorously tested by government-funded research. Why should things be different because this possibly magic bullet happens to be based in the law? So far, the CDC has funded implementation case studies of youth sports concussion laws in Washington and Massachusetts. PHLR is funding a more in-depth study in Washington, with results expected next year.

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Needing a Lawyer on the Team

by Wendy Parmet

It’s easy to see the value of including scientists in public health law research teams; most public health lawyers lack the training to conduct rigorous empirical research.  It may be harder to see the need for adding lawyers to the research team, but their presence is no less critical. Sometimes scientists have as much trouble understanding the law as the lawyers have understanding the science.

The value of involving lawyers in public health law research became clear to me recently as I was working on a project relating to health policies affecting immigrants. One question I wanted to know was how the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) affected immigrants’ access to health insurance in the United States.  So I decided to review the scientific literature. The results were dismaying.

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Infrastructural Law: The Lesser-Known Cousin

by Jennifer Ibrahim, PhD, MPH

An article by Julia Costich, MPA, JD, PhD, and Dana Patton, PhD, in the October 2012 edition of the American Journal of Public Health reveals the tip of the iceberg on a highly discussed and yet insufficiently researched topic: the legal infrastructure. While the team reports a significant impact of the legal infrastructure of local health departments on population health outcomes, the paper also raises questions regarding the role of law more generally in the functioning of health departments.

While we “see” law all the time in action, we rarely “see” law as an important factor influencing the way health agencies operate. Sure, we understand law as a way to drive the behavior of individuals by regulating sugar-sweetened beverages or prohibiting texting while driving or preventing smoking in indoor spaces — this is called interventional law — but there is a lesser-known cousin, infrastructural law, that desperately needs our attention.

While public health officials, policy-makers, advocates and academics regularly discuss the funding and organization of health departments at both the state and local levels, they less often step back to think about what is driving the process — law. As states are facing significant fiscal crisis, funds are a major concern, but it is important to remember that appropriations are made through law. Additionally, in recent years, during natural disasters such as hurricanes in the south and major floods in New England, there were questions in the news about which agencies should be doing what and when. The authority for a health department to act and/or to act in concert with another agency is derived from law.

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“Overcriminalization” and HIV

By Scott Burris

The concept of “overcriminalization” is gaining traction across the political spectrum.

The Heritage Foundation, which has a website devoted to the phenomenon, defines it as “the trend in America – and particularly in Congress – to use the criminal law to ‘solve’ every problem, punish every mistake (instead of making proper use of civil penalties), and coerce Americans into conforming their behavior to satisfy social engineering objectives.”   Others, like Michelle Alexander, drop the Ayn Rand tones and focus on mass incarceration as racialized social control. (My colleagues and I once calculated that African American males can expect to spend on average 3.09 years in prison or jail over their lifetime.) Douglas Husak argues that we need a theory of criminalization to help us get less of it.

One of the best examples of criminal law rushing in where angels fear to tread is the criminalization of HIV exposure. From the start, there was reason to fear that these laws would not reduce HIV transmission, and might exacerbate stigma and social hostility towards people with HIV. There was concern they might be used selectively, or just randomly.

This summer, the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law advised states to repeal or abstain from enacting such laws.  The Commission drew on a set of background papers that reviewed the extent of the phenomenon globally and addressed the argument that these laws are justified by moral values even if they are ineffective.

In this country, the President’s National AIDS Strategy suggested states reconsider these laws, but no laws have been repealed and prosecutions continue.  Fortunately, so does research, and it continues to show that these laws are not promoting public health. This week, the American Journal of Public Health published a new PHLR-funded study by Carol Galletley. This video sums up her findings:

When Do Doctors Discount Clinical Trial Results?

by Jonathan J. Darrow

A research study reported today in the New England Journal of Medicine found that physicians are able to discriminate between clinical trials with high levels of rigor versus those with low levels of rigor, as well as between clinical trials that are funded by industry and those that are funded by the government.

The randomized study analyzed the responses of 269 physicians who were presented with hypothetical abstracts of clinical trial findings for three hypothetical drugs.  Abstracts were deliberately crafted to reflect three levels of clinical trial rigor (low, medium, and high), and three types of funding disclosure (no disclosure, National Institutes of Health funding, and pharmaceutical industry funding), yielding 27 abstract types.

The major finding of the study was that physicians are less willing “to believe and act on trial findings, independent of the trial’s quality,” if the trial is funded by industry.  That industry funding led to a decrease in perceived credibility, even for large and well-designed trials, concerned the study authors, who felt that “[t]he methodologic rigor of a trial, not its funding disclosure, should be a primary determinant of its credibility.”

The full article citation is: Aaron S. Kesselheim et al., A Randomized Study of How Physicians Interpret Research Funding Disclosures, 367(12) New Eng. J. Med. 1119 (Sept. 20, 2012). Available here.

[Editorial Note: And within the et al. is Chris Robertson, a former Petrie-Flom Academic Fellow, current prof at University of Arizona, and future guest blogger here at Bill of Health!]

Evidence for Policy: Nice If You Can Get It

By Scott Burris

Sometimes researchers can tell policy makers pretty confidently what public health law interventions really make a difference. The PHLR website has more than 50 Evidence Briefs that summarize the results of systematic reviews of the evidence on interventional public health laws conducted by the Cochrane and Campbell Collaboratives, and the Community Guide to Preventive Services.. We know, for example, that  there is significant evidence to support water fluoridation as an effective public health intervention aimed at reducing tooth decay (Portland, are you listening?). We know that workplace smoking bans prevent heart attacks. For laws like these, we have numerous high quality studies, sometimes even experiments, that show whether or not the law is effective.

Unfortunately, problems don’t wait for evidence, and usually by the time there is a substantial body of evidence in place to review, most states have already made their policy decisions. What do we do when there is a problem that demands action, but there is no clearly effective legal action to take?

One of these days we’ll blog about what we think should happen. But for now, we can look at what often does happen. Usually, it resembles the fads we see in fashion: One state tries something, and other states follow, until a lot of states are doing something that might, or might not be working.

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The Evolution of Public Health Law Research

By: Scott Burris, JD

Law has been used to protect and promote public health from the early days of European colonization of North America. Quarantine statutes and orders are reported from the mid-17th century. The 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, where our office is based, inspired the federal government’s first public health statute, authorizing relocation of the capital in the event of an outbreak.

By the mid-19th century, sanitarians like Boston’s own Lemuel Shattuck were articulating the idea that a considerable proportion of death and illness was preventable, and arguing that it was moral, feasible, and economical for the state to do the preventing. Law was a primary tool for prevention, and throughout the 19th century, and into the early twentieth, the extent and limitations of federal, state and local public health authority was litigated, debated in legislatures and defined in voluminous treatises by scholars like Freund, Tiedeman and Tobey.

And then, it got quiet.

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