A Smarter, More Muscular Nanny State: RWJF's Push to Bolster Public Health Law

Given that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is pulling every lever it can think of to improve America's health, it shouldn't be surprising that this funder is keenly interested in using the law to advance that mission. 

New laws and regulations are a tried and true way to advance the public good. Think of how environmental laws have led to cleaner air and water, the benefits of consumer safety laws, or how law has been used to fight different forms of discrimination. 

Could law do more to advance public health? RWJF clearly thinks so, but it also wants more information about what kinds of laws are effective. Not every public health law makes sense. Since 2009, it's been funding an initiative called Public Health Law Research (PHLR), based at Temple University, which is "dedicated to building the evidence base for laws that improve public health."

RWJF has put up funds to study a wide array of public health laws. A round of grants through PHLR last November, for example, went to study laws focused on electronic cigarettes, school immunization requirements, crackdowns on addictive prescription drugs, and other issues. 

RWJF is also backing a hands-on push to better use the law to bolster public health, making several big grants in this area in the past month. 

In April, it made two grants of around a million dollars each to support the Network for Public Health Law. The money will not only support public health attorney in using law "to promote, protect, and improve health," but also public health practitioners and policymakers who share the goal. Funds will help pay for technical assistance, training, and legal analyses. 

Another big RWJF grant for this work also went out to the Aspen Institute, where RWJF previously funded a two-year pilot program in this area called Excellence in State Public Health Law (ESPHL) program. The specific goal of Aspen's work is to foster better cooperation between different policy-makers involved in public health at the state level, and the institute's efforts are now moving to a new stage with RWJF's support. (Read more here.)