Doctor of Jurisprudence Scott Burris spoke Oct. 24 about the theoretical and practical applications of law in public health.

The lecture, entitled “Law As A Factor In Public Health,” focused on the role of the legal system in combating high health risk behaviors that lead to disease and to other health problems.

“Law operates as a pathway along which fundamental social causes of disease have their effect,” Burris said, a James E. Beasley Professor of Law at Temple University and the Associate Director of the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at Johns Hopkins University.

Burris has an extensive history of applying his legal expertise to involvement in public health concerns. From 1988 to 1991, Burris served as Counsel in the American Civil Liberties Union’s AIDS and Civil Liberties Project. In addition to working with organizations such as the United Nations and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Burris has written many articles on public health policy and law, and remains engaged in legal issues of public health through his role at the Center for Law and the Public’s Health.

In his presentation, which appealed mostly to an audience of health professionals, Burris addressed legal means by which he proposed to combat the underlying social determinants of poor health and unhealthy behavior.

Burris specifically cited the legal and social implications of being an intravenous drug user, such as institutionalized police racism, drug laws, social inequity and disillusionment, and various intervention measures.

“It is necessary that we understand the different ways structure becomes health,” Burris said. He stressed that reforming the legal system could have a tremendous impact on reducing risky behaviors by targeting their fundamental causes rather than the symptoms.

According to Burris, the law needs to play two general roles in increasing public health – promoting equality and increasing social cohesion.

“A more homogenous distribution of income would produce a safer, healthier, happier society,” Burris said. Those two strategies, coupled with increasing people’s sense of empowerment, have had dramatic effects in struggling communities in South Africa and elsewhere.

This difference was bridged in the many rural South African communities where peace committees, groups of health care providers and negotiators, intervened to solve disputes and facilitate general health improvements.

These interventions resulted in happier people who were less prone to conflict, crime, and other high health risk behaviors, according to Burris.

The grassroots nature of these committees, which elicited support from the people, fostered a sense of empowerment in community members. Burris also cited the example of a Toronto project that had addressed areas afflicted with high levels of drug crimes and disease.

“There is a difference between being poor and being miserable,” Burris said.

Dubinsky can be reached at

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