The law and the public's health: a study of infectious disease law in the United States

Columbia Law Rev. 1999 Jan;99(1):59-128.


Law plays crucial roles in the field of public health, from defining the power and jurisdiction of health agencies, to influencing the social norms that shape individual behavior. Despite its importance, public health law has been neglected. Over a decade ago, the Institute of Medicine issued a report lamenting the state of public health administration, generally, and calling, in particular, for a revision of public health statutes. The Article examines the current state of public health law. To help create the conditions in which people can be healthy, public health law must reflect an understanding of how public health agencies work to promote health, as well as the political and social contexts in which these agencies operate. The authors first discuss three prevailing ways in which the determinants of health are conceptualized, and the political and social problems each model tends to create for public health efforts. The analysis then turns to the core functions of public health, emphasizing how law furthers public health work. The Article reports the results of a fifty-state survey of communicable disease control law, revealing that few states have systematically reformed their laws to reflect contemporary medical and legal developments. The Article concludes with specific guidelines for law reform.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Causality
  • Communicable Diseases* / epidemiology
  • Communicable Diseases* / etiology
  • Cost of Illness
  • Data Collection
  • Delivery of Health Care
  • Guidelines as Topic
  • Health Behavior
  • Health Promotion
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Population Surveillance*
  • Privacy
  • Public Health / history
  • Public Health / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Public Health / trends
  • United States