Law can be a powerful tool to protect the public’s health and promote its well-being. This tool can be used most effectively when public health practitioners, attorneys and advocates understand the legal framework around the field of public health and how it relates to the work that they do. The legal framework for a professional field is determined by many sources of law, including constitutions, statutes and court opinions. Many governmental agencies are also able to “make law” to protect the public’s health. For example, a state health or agricultural agency may be empowered to protect migrant workers by adopting rules to establish minimum health and safety requirements for agricultural labor camps
The Limited Access Medical Marijuana Laws Survey provides a brief overview of jurisdictions with statutory and regulatory provisions legalizing limited access medical marijuana programs.
May 15, 1:00 – 2:30 p.m. EST. In 2014, while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, the city of Flint, Michigan, switched its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River. As a result, lead from the aging service lines to homes leached into the drinking water and poisoned thousands of Flint residents. A team of Network attorneys recently published an analysis examining legal aspects of the Flint water crisis. In this webinar, two of the report’s authors will explore the complex legal arrangements at the heart of the crisis and review recommended changes to the relevant laws and their implementation. Then, a health disparities researcher and an activist and community organizer, both based in Flint, will jointly present a community-level response to the crisis. View the playback.
Preemption can impact state and local public health measures, just as it can impact other state and local regulatory actions. Recently, a bill requiring that foods containing genetically modified organism display a federally-mandated disclosure effectively preempted Vermont's state-level GMO labeling law. An understanding of how preemption operates can be of great value to public health practitioners.
Public health surveillance is the ongoing systematic collection, analysis and interpretation of health and other data to inform public health efforts. The Network was recently contacted by a requestor from a state health department planning to conduct blood testing for health surveillance purposes. The requestor had several questions about informed consent related to the testing and associated questionnaires for participants, as well as retention and storage of the health information collected.
To address a public health problem, public health practitioners, attorneys and/or advocates must consider what entity or agency has the authority to best address the problem. Determining the answer may be difficult because it often requires an understanding of complex legal doctrines, the ability to harmonize conflicting or obscure laws and analyze and apply relevant court opinions. It is also important for practitioners to understand that in certain areas related to public health, federal law preempts or takes precedence over state law. For example, federal law preempts state law for establishing car safety standards under Congress’s constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce. But in other cases, state law might preempt local law. For example, some state laws give state government the exclusive authority to regulate smoking in bars or restaurants throughout that state. In other cases, authority to protect the public’s health may rest with multiple agencies, including agencies at the federal, state and local levels of government.
Once they have determined what entity or agency has responsibility for a particular public health issue, public health practitioners, attorneys and advocates must also consider the approaches or remedies available to address this problem. Before jumping to legislative solutions, they should examine existing authority for potential applicability.
Depending on the public health issue at hand, they may consider ethical factors relevant to solving the problem as well. For example, does a proposed law or action unfairly burden certain individuals or groups of individuals? Is the proposed law or action going to have an impact that disproportionally affects the public health threat to be addressed? Finally, those dealing with public health issues with legal ramifications must also remember to consider practical considerations when choosing an approach or remedy, including public acceptability, enforceability, availability of resources to implement and political feasibility.
Network attorneys with expertise in public health law can provide technical assistance and training on the legal framework for public health practice and how to best use the law as a tool to promote or protect the public’s health. Network attorneys are also able to help practitioners exploring potential interventions to address a public health problem, including evaluating merits and tradeoffs and identifying jurisdictions that have already used law to address that particular problem.
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The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, please consult specific legal counsel. For more information on the type of legal assistance the Network can provide, please see frequently asked questions.