One way that law can be used to impact public health is by regulating the information that is available to the community. For example, government can limit the advertising of unhealthy products such as tobacco and alcohol. Or support the dissemination of information by distributing health education materials about diabetes prevention.
We’ve all heard the numerous jokes about mattress tags and warnings on cups of hot coffee. However, requiring certain information to be displayed on consumer products, or requiring labeling, is a way that the government can inform the public about potential hazards, health risks and concerns.
Health warnings on cigarettes are very familiar to those in public health. The adverse health effects of smoking and second-hand smoke are clearly established and for many years the law has required the well-known “SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING” label on packs of cigarettes. Past research, however, has questioned the effectiveness of a printed warning while other studies concluded that graphic warnings more effectively inform people of the dangers of smoking. To this end, Congress enacted the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in June 2009, which authorized the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop graphic warning labels for cigarettes. In June 2011, the FDA released several images required to be displayed by cigarette manufactures on their products and in advertising as of September 2012. In August, however, the tobacco industry sued the FDA and on November 7, 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon granted a temporary injunction based on the tobacco industry’s argument that the new graphic warnings breached their right to free speech. (Read a public health lawyer’s perspective on the ruling here.)
Informing consumers about a food product or ingredients is another way of protecting public health. Nutrition and ingredient labels have been on food packages for years, however, new areas for labeling have emerged. For example, in April 2011, the Food and Drug Administration, as authorized by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, issued its proposed requirements for restaurants to post calorie and nutrition information of their menu items. The hope is that by providing such information consumers will make healthier food choices, thereby lessening the demand for unhealthy menu items and addressing the obesity issue.
There remain gaps in legal efforts to inform consumers of the health hazards of product ingredients. The ingredients ofmany household products are not disclosed, even when evidence exists that the ingredients pose a potential harm. For example, a recent study at the University of Washington examined the chemical make-up of fragranced laundry dryer sheets by analyzing home dryer vent emissions. The researchers detected several volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are classified as hazardous air pollutants in the dryer vent emissions. Two of the compounds are classified as carcinogenic and have no safe exposure level. The law does not require the manufacturers of the dryer sheets to inform consumers about their products ingredients, though attempts have been made to require disclosure. In 2009 Senator Al Franken introduced the Household Products Labeling Act that would require that the ingredients of dryer sheets and other household products (e.g., air fresheners, dishwashing soap, furniture polish, etc.) be labeled on such products. The act failed to be enacted.
Informing the public about health risks and dangers is an important role for government. Deciding what information is to be made public is a powerful tool in protecting public health.
This information was developed by Andy Baker-White, associate director for the Network for Public Health Law – Mid-States Region at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state