Unlocking the potential of law to prevent chronic disease


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The role of public health law in preventing chronic disease

Project title

What is the issue?

Public health law has delivered many of the most celebrated successes in health promotion globally including gun laws, mandatory seatbelt use in motor vehicles, excise taxes on alcohol and the plain packaging of tobacco.

Despite these successes, public health law remains an underutilised public health tool. One reason for this is that while governments have been able to employ effective legal responses to public health challenges, especially where interventions have clear measures of effectiveness (e.g. reduced smoking rates), there has been limited rigorous measurement and evaluation of the impact of the broad range of public health law affecting the health of populations.

Also, public health law comes in a number of guises including statute, government regulation, common law and ‘soft’ law, not all of which are well recognised. This means that policy makers often do not know what works in preventing chronic disease and which legal strategies have little, or unintended, effects. Consequently, policy makers lack the empirical evidence to justify significant public health policy changes.

How did the project address the issue?

This PhD project developed methods and processes to facilitate the evaluation of public health law’s impact.

The project :

  • Investigated the impact of case law on the regulation of alcohol availability in Australia
  • Conducted systematic reviews into topics including the effectiveness of ‘soft law’ or alternative legal systems (e.g. community-led alcohol restrictions)
  • Used qualitative methods such as case studies and stakeholder interviews to evaluate public health law interventions in terms of effectiveness and implementation.

Relevance for practice

The project hypothesised that improving the generation and translation of evidence about public health law to cater for the complex needs of policy makers would help to garner the political support necessary to maximise the potential of powerful, acceptable and sustainable public health law in preventing chronic disease.

The project aimed to develop empirical research tools that policy makers and researchers can use to identify deficiencies in existing public health law (in terms of power, effectiveness, acceptability and sustainability), and to inform the design of legislative reform. These tools will build the capacity of those invested in prevention to respond to the epidemic of chronic disease with innovative, tailored and practical policy models.

Through this work, the implementation of effective and cost-effective public health law holds the potential to strengthen national capacity, leadership and governance in area of disease prevention, particularly in addressing the health inequalities suffered by disenfranchised and disadvantaged populations.

What were the outcomes?

  • We identified a number of cases where public health arguments failed and decisions were made in favour of industry.
  • We found that public health evidence was largely discounted as there was no clear basis in law on which it could be used.
  • Using case law to evaluate public health laws enabled us to uncover the scope of the problem, identify the legal issues underpinning it, and show a way forward to ensure legislation fulfils its intended purpose.



Other publications



  • How can public health law research methods strengthen the prevention agenda? Emerging Health Policy Research Conference 2017, Sydney, 27 July 2017
  • How do the world’s Indigenous communities use law, culture and collective action to reduce alcohol-related harm?,  ANU, Canberra, 10 August 2017,
  • Emerging Health Policy Conference 2016, “How do Indigenous communities use public health law to control alcohol: a global systematic review”
  • Healthier Law: How rigorous public health law can strengthen prevention policy, The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, University of Sydney
  • Judicial intervention in alcohol control, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney
  • The role of law in shaping a culture of health, The George Institute for Global Health
  • Effect of stroke and importance of driving in young survivors, The George Institute for Global Health
  • Public Policy and Alcohol Controls in Indigenous Communities, University of Sydney Masters of International Public Health Mental Disorders in Global Context
  • Judicial intervention in alcohol control: an analysis of case law, Emerging Health Policy Research Conference, Sydney, Australia, 21 July 2015


This project was funded by the NHMRC, Australian Government Department of Health, NSW Ministry of Health, ACT Health and the HCF Research Foundation.