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Populations, Public Health, and the Law

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A fundamental tension in the American political and legal landscape is this: individual liberty v. the common good. When does one trump the other? This ongoing tension becomes particularly problematic when new threats to public health appear, such as HIV or pandemic influenza. Parmet explores this terrain by offering a population-based approach to legal analysis, claiming that law should seek, among other things, to protect and promote public health--something that has been badly neglected, she claims, in legal discourse and biomedical models of disease in our hyper-individualistic society. In the first few chapters she defines public health, establishing its importance to human activity, and lays out the basics of a population-based approach. In subsequent chapters she employs this approach to several issues: constitutional law, health law, tort law, international law and human rights, as well as specific controversial subjects such as obesity--to what degree should law govern the fast food industry?--the use of tobacco, toxic chemicals, global warming, and the emergence of new infections. Along the way she demonstrates how a population-based approach can better help us analyze, for example, the relationship between health and socioeconomic status. The book concludes with Parmet's musings on the future of population-based legal analysis and its central claim: that by recognizing the importance of public health law, and also recognizing the interests of the individual, we can not only better protect the health of communities but also enhance contemporary legal discourse.
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Editorial Reviews

Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: Daniel Swartzman, JD, MPH (University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health)
Description: Prof. Wendy Parmet's book has a clear point of view, that the law should be judged, in part, by its ability to produce an increase in the healthiness of the population, an approach referred to as "population-based legal analysis."
Purpose: Prof. Parmet is advocating for this particular view of the law, which is based upon three core elements. First, that populations affect the law and are affected by the law. Second, that there ought to be a "normative stance toward population health." If the law promotes public health, then that is a "positive good." And third, the law ought to incorporate the empirical and probabilistic analyses of traditional population-based approaches to health alongside the analogical and deductive reasoning that are the current accepted heuristics in the legal profession. This is an interesting and potentially important thesis, and Prof. Parmet does a good job of explaining and exploring it.
Audience: The audience for this book is broad. It will be useful to academics in law schools and in schools of public health, both as a treatise and as a text. It has some use as an extended essay for practicing lawyers. Prof. Parmet is a well-known and highly respected author, and this will add to her reputation.
Features: The book looks at how population-based legal analysis differs from more common perspectives, like the law and economics approach, and more traditional public health law critiques. It examines how this analytical view would play out in a variety of public health law arenas, like obesity prevention and control, the uses of tort law in public health, food safety, etc.
Assessment: As a professor at a school of public health, I would consider this book for my class in law and public health. It has enough of the intellectual history that is sometime lacking in other such books, it has a well-argued perspective which will give students something to respond to, and it covers most of the topics needed in such a class. I didn't see much on property law or contract law, fundamental parts of American jurisprudence that have their place in public health's efforts to control problems such as pollution, lead poisoning, food labeling, etc. But that is a quibble. As a practicing plaintiff's lawyer, I would predict that if the courts were willing to accept Prof. Parmet's suggestions, pursuing justice for victims of poor public health practices would be much easier. Although I think such changes are unlikely to happen anytime soon, they wouldn't happen at all unless someone suggests them with reason and clarity, as Prof. Parmet does in this book.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781589012615
  • Publisher: Georgetown University Press
  • Publication date: 4/2/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,427,010
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Wendy E. Parmet is George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law at Northeastern University and directs the law school's dual degree JD--MPH program with Tufts University School of Medicine. She is a coauthor of Ethical Health Care.

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Table of Contents


1. Public Health and the Population Perspective

2. Public Health and American Law

3. Toward a Population-Based Legal Analysis: The Supreme Beef Case

4. Population Health and Federalism: Whose Job is It?

5. Individual Rights, Population Health, and Due Process

6. A Right to Die? Further Reflections on Due Process Rights

7. The First Amendment and the Obesity Epidemic

8. A Population-Based Health Law

9. Tort Law: A Population Approach to Private Law

10. Globalizing Population-Based Legal Analysis

11. The Future for Population--Based Legal Analysis

Table of U.S. Cases


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