Book Review – Public and Environmental Health Law by Christopher Reynolds (The Federation Press)

Public and Environmental Health Law by Christopher Reynolds (The Federation Press, 2011) will be of interest to anyone interested in the “…potential of law and legislation to further the practice of public health”. The successor to two similar editions by the same author, it is sufficiently accessible to permit a wide readership but detailed enough to touch on the nuances of modern public health law. It is a critical reference, both to those new to the field and those requiring a broad overview of the relationships and connections between law and public health in contemporary Australia.

Anticipating varying degrees of familiarity with the general topic, the text is thorough but focused, outlining core subjects including:

  • the governance of public health
  • courts and evidence
  • statutory powers, procedural fairness and legal liability
  • the scope and theory of regulation
  • environmental health and public health acts
  • environmental protection
  • future directions for public health law
  • land use planning
  • infectious disease, emergencies and pandemics
  • food law
  • law and the diseases of lifestyle: tobacco, alcohol and obesity

As in its predecessors, Reynolds emphasizes the “…importance of inter-sectoral thinking and ‘joined up government’ or ‘health in all’ polices”, and in this respect (with many others) will be of interest to those exploring medical-legal partnerships or advocacy health alliances that also transcend professional boundaries to achieve effective outcomes.

A point of interest for those with a strong individual rights framework is Reynold’s reference to the rights agenda, exploring some of the tensions and more recent work to balance broad public objectives with individual interests. Reynolds encourages a middle path through the tensions, citing principles of proportionality and least restrictive interventions, and the ‘communitarianism’ approach of public health academic Lawrence Gostin – “…a rethinking of the view that the individual’s interests are automatically subservient to the community interest coupled with the recognition that, on occasions, communities need to be protected from public health risks.”

Reynolds reminder about how a rights dialogue can be hijacked by powerful corporate interests pedaling a nanny-state mantra is also thought provoking. His counter to the argument draws on the 1854 case study of cholera-ravaged London, which neatly bookends the text. Dr John Snow, who in 1854 mapped the distribution of patients with cholera and correlated this with the location of a particular pump (the source of the problem), advised the authorities to simply take the handle off the pump.

“Rather than advising parents to tell their children they should never draw water from the pump, and rather than telling them that if they or their children got sick it was their own fault for not avoiding the risk and that they had no-one to blame but themselves, Snow went directly to the cause of the problem and disabled it. Across the spectrum of today’s public health problems there are many ‘pumps’ that are far more effectively addressed at source than they are through the rhetoric of personal responsibility, and law and legislation so often will be the medium through which their ‘handles’ can be removed.”

Public and Environmental Health Law deserves its place on the shelf of anyone interested in the intersection of health and law. It is a clear and concise reference and will prove a useful springboard for more detailed reading and research in specific areas of personal interest.

Peter Noble

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