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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Professional Athletes and Personal Responsibility for Health

[Disclaimer: I am not involved in this, and the views expressed here are entirely my own.]

Concussions and Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) have been the dominant subject of concern in the sports world recently, and for good reason, but I would like to highlight an often overlooked and more general problem.  Our athletes are rewarded for pushing their bodies to the brink to accomplish majestic feats, requiring physical perfection.  We laud playing through injuries to succeed at the pinnacle of sport, or recovering from injuries at super human speeds, only to return those bodies to the brutal punishment of competition.[1]  With these pressures, Concussions and PEDs can be viewed as mere symptoms of a culture that runs from the fans to the teams to the players themselves, asking them to sacrifice their bodies, sometimes, to the detriment of their long-term health.  In this new age of awareness about player health, we should be asking: Are athletes making properly informed rational choices about their health?  Or are there situations where neither the players nor their teams are properly incentivized to protect long-term player health due to the culture described above?

Some recent stories have exemplified the culture:

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No Doctor for the Obese?

by Nir Eyal

Yesterday, Boston public radio station WBUR interviewed a Massachusetts primary care physician who refuses to admit new obese patients. She claims that it’s because she lacks proper equipment, but she seems to have mixed motives. Earlier she had admitted that it’s rather because she feels that if they don’t lose the weight, “I’m paying the cost of other people’s choices.” I bet if she lacked the equipment for wheelchair-bound patients, she would go buy it.

In an upcoming post (09/07: update here), Holly Fernandez Lynch, who, along with Glenn Cohen, gets kudus for kicking off this blog, will explain whether it’s legal for doctors to reject obese patients. But before rejecting them becomes the next trend, is it right?

A whopping 35.7% of Americans are obese, and the trend continues upwards. Obesity increases risk for heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, and various cancers. It costs the system a fortune. We must tackle this problem head on. But conditioning physician access on weight loss is not the way. Continue reading