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WHO report shows good law bolsters public health

16 January 2017
Plain packaging and salt limit laws among measures highlighted

A University of Sydney Law School expert is the principal author of a new World Health Organization (WHO) report, which describes the many ways law makes a crucial difference for public health. 

2018 UPDATE: The World Health Organisation published an update and summary guide to the report, Advancing the Right to Health: the Vital Role of Law, integrating new health data and referring to new developments, including the list of highly cost–effective legal measures for reducing risk factors for non-communicable diseases (NCDs), drawn from the updated Appendix 3 of the WHO Global Action Plan for Prevention and Control of NCDs. It also references selected new decisions, such as the unsuccessful claim by a tobacco company against Uruguay’s tobacco control laws, and the decision of the Constitutional Court of Colombia confirming the right to receive information about the health effects of sugary drinks. Read the update here.


Artwork from a new WHO report shows a group of boys in Ethiopia.

A group of boys in Ethiopia. The report features a series of case studies from around the globe, including a food programme for maternal and child health in the African nation. 

Advancing the Right to Health: The Vital Role of Law is a collaboration with WHO, the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) and Georgetown University.

“There is tremendous, untapped potential to use law more effectively to strengthen health systems and change lives for the better,” said Professor Roger Magnusson, the report’s principal author and Professor of Health Law and Governance at the University of Sydney Law School. “The law is a powerful tool to help people live longer and healthier lives, and for economies to be more resilient.” 

The report features case studies from around the world on how the law has improved the health and safety of populations, providing a resource for countries to learn from the experience of others.

“Some of the best examples in this report use population-wide interventions to reshape the environments in which people make their lifestyle choices,” said Dr Rüdiger Krech, Director of Health Systems and Innovation at the WHO in Geneva.

“This requires extraordinary government commitment, courage and persistence in the face of powerful commercial interests.”

Health laws often make the headlines when they have a direct impact on the everyday consumption patterns of people, such as Mexico’s so-called soda tax, introduced in 2014 to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. In the same vein, Australia’s plain packaging laws for tobacco products have become a global standard-bearer in the effort to reduce smoking rates.

“The use of law to reduce smoking has been one of the great public health achievements, but there is so much more we could do with unhealthy foods, excessive alcohol use, injuries, and mental health,” said Professor Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University.

“This report offers a pathway to using evidence-based legal interventions for human health and wellbeing.”​

The report notes the law will be a vital tool for countries to make progress towards the health-related targets in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

“One of the most useful aspects of this report is that it links human rights to urgent public health challenges,” said David Patterson, IDLO’s program manager for health law.

“This approach, based on non-discrimination, participation, transparency and accountability, is the best way to ensure that responses are locally appropriate and sustainable.”

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