Archived: Better evaluation could unlock benefits of public health law

24 May 2016

Australia has an excellent track record in effective public health law interventions, such as plain packaging of cigarettes, gun laws, food labelling and mandatory seatbelt laws, but there is great untouched potential to use the law to combat the chronic disease epidemic, a seminar on public health law has heard.

PhD candidate Jan Muhunthan (pictured above) called for greater emphasis on the measurement and evaluation of public health law so it could play a more prominent role in decision making.

“At national, state and territory and local government levels, we need to redesign public policies that are failing our nation’s health,” she told the seminar, co-hosted by The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre and The George Institute for Global Health.

“Debates about health all too often focus on healthcare, not the social determinants of health,” Ms Muhunthan said. “We need significant investment targeted to broad areas that affect our health, such as poverty, inequality, housing, transport and education, and the law can play a part in all of these.”

Barriers to research

She said barriers to the generation of public law health research in Australia included a lack of funding, a lack of education opportunities for researchers in this field, and a disconnect between public health policy and law experts and key decision makers in health and other sectors.

Ms Muhunthan is undertaking a Prevention Centre-funded PhD on the role of public health law in preventing chronic disease. Her research has already identified many unintended impacts associated with liquor control laws.

For example, in NSW, Shoalhaven City Council rejected an application for a huge liquor outlet in East Nowra, based on community and police evidence that the ready availability of cheap alcohol would have negative impacts on health, such as exacerbating already high levels of domestic violence, poor school attendance and alcohol-related crime. However, the court overturned the decision and the proposal went ahead.

When Ms Muhunthan investigated the drivers associated with similar court rulings, she found that in 75% of cases, the alcohol industry was successful in overturning local government decisions around the availability of liquor outlets, pubs and clubs sometimes despite evidence from the community over possible adverse health outcomes.

Ms Muhunthan’s project is evaluating the impact of public health law by investigating case law on the regulation of alcohol availability in Australia, through systematic reviews into the effectiveness of Indigenous community-led alcohol restrictions, and through qualitative methods to gauge the effectiveness of public health law interventions.

She aims to develop new methodological approaches to evaluating public health law, policy and regulation, and to translate the evidence generated by the project into clear and practical guidelines that will see public health law prioritised in disease prevention.