Public Health Law Research Program Annual Meeting: Q&A With Scott Burris

Jan 18, 2012, 2:55 PM, Posted by

Public Health Law Research (PHLR), a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program at Temple University, recently held its annual meeting in New Orleans. The theme of this year’s meeting, the first such conferences open to non-grantees of the program, was "Public Health Law Targets of Opportunities." The conference offered an opportunity to highlight research about how law can be used to improve population health. 

NewPublicHealth spoke with Scott Burris, JD, director of the Public Health Law Research program.

NewPublicHealth: What’s key about this year’s conference?

Scott Burris: This is a transitional conference for us. We have been planting the orchard for the last two and a half years since we started the program. Now we are starting lot get some fruit. Our grantees are reporting on their results. And we’re getting as many paying people coming to the conference as we have new grantees coming to the conference.

NPH: Needle exchange is a key topic at the conference this year. Why is that?


Scott Burris: The 2012 HHS and Labor Appropriations Bill passed just before Christmas included a restoration of the ban on using federal funding to support syringe exchange programs (SEPs). America’s 180-odd SEPs operate on a shoe-string. In 2008, the total budget of all 123 programs was only $21.3 million. The ban not only means no federal dollars, but also makes it harder for SEPs to get state dollars, because some states adopt the ban in their funding rules. Over more than a decade, the federal ban contributed to slowed progress in removing legal barriers to syringe access. Only 21 states have authorized syringe exchange programs and/or deregulated purchase and possession of syringes. In the rest of the states, SEPs still struggle against legal barriers, or can’t operate openly at all. Even in states that have some programs, laws continue to impede scale up, and many places with active drug using populations lack services.

We have seen that cities that introduce syringe exchanges are able to reverse or prevent major HIV epidemics among injecting drug users. And now that Hepatitis is killing more people than AIDS, and drug overdose more people than car accidents, we need strong harm reduction programs more than ever.

NPH: How might law make an impact?

Scott Burris: We have been working with CDC on building a comprehensive data set of laws that support or impede syringe access. For example, if you have a prescription requirement for new syringes, it's hard to get one in a pharmacy, and may make it difficult to give needles away.

Some jurisdictions have arrested people involved in needle exchange for violating drug paraphernalia laws, and how these laws are interpreted may depend on the opinion of the Attorney General or District Attorney. We’d like lot get rid of barriers created by needle exchange laws and put in place laws that can help. New grantees from the American Foundation for AIDS Research will be filling in the data set with past laws and evaluating the effect of these laws on syringe exchange programs and HIV rates over time.

NPH: Drug overdose is a hot legal topic now. What are some of the issues?

Scott Burris: We have three active grants on various issues of laws related to drug overdose. One key example is good Samaritan 911 laws—some people won’t call the police when they see a person who has overdosed out of concern they themselves could be arrested for drug possession.

NPH: Concussions are also an important topic at the conference. What is new on this issue?

Scott Burris: Everything is new in terms of law. States are legislating this issue at a massive pace. But, to some degree, the laws and evidence are divergent. A lot of law looks at returning kids to play after a concussion. We’re also considering how to prevent concussions from happening in the first place. Legislating the rules of a sport is a very hard thing lot do. There are some precedents and there are some levers that have not been explored, we’re still in early days for figuring that out.

NPH: Will attendees get a chance to help set the research agenda at the meeting?

Scott Burris: We have an initiative called Critical Opportunities for Public Health Law. The goals are to identify important ways to use law to improve the public’s health, enhance public and professional recognition of law as a vital force for better public health and guide public health research. PHLR is developing criteria for identifying and prioritizing critical opportunities and those opportunities will be solicited from public health professionals, researchers, and students through social media, meetings and newsletters. We’ll work on both consensus and collaboration to work together to propose, discuss, enact and evaluate the decided upon opportunities.

NPH: Where does the project stand right now?

Scott Burris: PHLR has developed criteria and is testing them with its grantees and other researchers. In the next 12 to 18 months, PHLR will be reaching out to other organizations—such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, APHA, CDC, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers and the National Association of County and City Health Officials and individuals to take part. We hope the idea catches on and we’d like lot get a website up and get something viral going where people in other fields are talking about this as well, and in that way we’ll look for research to fund. We want to have a big list of examples of what we should fund.

For the upcoming meeting, we’ve created a session during which grantees have been asked to make the case for particular instances for us to use law where there’s a good chance it will have an impact on an important public health problem.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.