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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International

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Book Chapter

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International Forum Gastein




Law is an essential tool for protecting the public’s health. It is often the law that turns public health science into public health action. Sanitation, clean air and water, universal vaccination, injury prevention, tobacco control, drug policy, and a vast array of other interventions are achieved through a complex web of local, provincial and national statutes, regulations and judicial cases. The Institute of Medicine in the United States defines public health as “what we, as a society, do collectively to ensure the conditions in which people can be healthy.” And society acts collectively most often through law.

Thus, the merging of law and public health is not a future goal. It has already happened. This merger has been with us since kings quarantined ships arriving in port to prevent the spread of contagious disease from abroad. Perhaps because law has been a part of public health for so long, we take it for granted and often fail to recognize how it can and should be used. But the expanding domain of public health invites a fresh look at the relationship between law and public health. Two perspectives are the focus of this paper. The first is the need for training health professionals in law in order to achieve public health goals. The second is an important caveat about the role of law in preventing health risks that arise from personal behaviors. This is because many new threats to public health in the northern hemisphere come from personal behaviors, which means that public health solutions often require infringing on individual rights. This can create conflicts between the goals of law and the goals of public health.



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