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Perspect Biol Med. 2003 Summer;46(3 Suppl):S199-209.

The scope and limits of public health law.

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  • 1School of Law, Wake Forest University, P.O. Box 7206, Winston-Salem, NC 27109-7206, USA.


Public health law needs to differentiate more clearly between public health analysis and public health authority, that is, between the scientific boundaries of epidemiology and tile legal and regulatory boundaries of public health. These boundaries matter because public health law confers tremendous authority on government officials, including some powers that are justified only in situations of extreme urgency. The extent of this legal power explains the inclination of activists to apply public health paradigms to various social problems beyond the traditional origins of public health law; once a causal connection to a widespread health problem is identified, it falls within the authority of public health officials to take whatever actions are necessary to eradicate the threat to health. This approach might lead to dangerous conditions in which public health officials overstep the proper bounds of public health law, even though they arguably are continuing to exercise proper analytical tools for understanding public health problems. Public health authority should remain grounded in traditional conceptions of disease, which depend on a specific agent or behavior that threatens health in a direct and clear manner, and for which a targeted and effective remedy that requires collective action is available. It should not extend to diseases viewed as resulting from social, economic, and political conditions.

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