What is Public Health Law?

Felicia Dye

Concern for the safety and health of people often raises legal issues. Public health law is the area of jurisprudence developed to deal with those issues. Public health tends to focus more on masses than on individuals. Legislation, regulation, and litigation are components of public health law that are used to try to improve and ensure the welfare of large groups of people, such as citizens of a province, state, or country.

Prohibiting cigarette smoking in public buildings is one type of public health law.
Prohibiting cigarette smoking in public buildings is one type of public health law.

Public health law can be effective by educating people, by creating a sense of good citizenship, and by deterring people with punishments. Some laws attempt to achieve public health goals by demanding certain behaviors, such as requiring immunizations for children. Other laws prohibit actions that could be harmful, such as prohibiting cigarette smoking in public buildings. Public health law, like other areas of law, is not universal. What is prohibited or encouraged in one locality may be completely different than what is prohibited or encouraged in another.

Lobbyists attempt to shape public health policy.
Lobbyists attempt to shape public health policy.

One function of public health law is to guide the way that medical professionals do their jobs. Considering that medicine is a field that directly affects peoples’ lives, it is important that legal structures are in place to help the medical system operate efficiently, effectively, and safely. Regulations of public health, however, are not only limited to concerns for the medical profession.

A government has a responsibility to protect its people. This means that protecting the health of citizens is the government’s duty and should be one of its primary goals. Public health law helps governments to achieve this by creating missions for public health authorities, assigning functions that guide those authorities in executing their missions, and specifying the extent of their power. In many cases, this is the means by which governments are informed of responsibilities that may not have been previously considered.

The duty of enforcing public health laws usually falls upon an array of authorities such as police, health agencies, and child enforcement services. Public health law oftentimes considers who bears the burden of enforcement. In some instances, public law goes an extra step and states how those individuals must be trained and kept abreast of developing enforcement issues.

Some laws, and the manner that legal officials uphold them, are not beneficial to the public from a health perspective. To address such issues is another function of public health law. For example, certain federal airport regulations may be established for security reasons. In the event of an epidemic, those measures may present a greater risk to the public. Public health law in these instances often requires policy research, analysis, and evaluation, and may also require that those working with public health laws interact with professionals in other areas of law.

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