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Public health expert to speak at annual IU McKinney award lecture

February 12, 2018

A noted expert in public health law will speak Friday at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law’s annual McDonald-Merrill-Ketcham Award Lecture.

Scott Burris, J.D., Professor of Law and Public Health and Director of the Center for Public Health Law and Research at Temple University Beasley School of Law, will receive the award, and present “Not Just for Lawyers: A Transdisciplinary Model of Health Law and Its Implications for Practice and Policy Change.”

Since joining the Temple faculty in 1991, Burris’ research has focused on how law influences public health and health behavior. He is the author of more than 200 books, book chapters, articles and reports. He is a founder of Legal Science, LLC, a private company dedicated to the social mission of improving access to legal information and the supporting of the practice of policy surveillance.

Burris said his talk will focus on how law is used to further public health goals. He said despite the current anti-regulatory rhetoric in our politics, legislators are passing hundreds of health laws every session across the country. He said this verbal bombast has caused unnecessary diffidence in the public health world.

“If you want to make a difference, that’s where you’ve got to work,” he said. “I still think there is a certain amount of cultural hesitancy, (but) you couldn’t imagine modern public health without law.”

Burris said a perfect example of this phenomenon was the proliferation of seat belt laws, where lower mortality rates resulted from enforcement in early adopting states. This data caused other jurisdictions that were tentative about making such violations a primary offense to take notice.

“There are a lot of researchers who I think need to recognize and own the fact that they’re doing law,” he said. “They’re not lawyers, but they’re the people who tell us: Is this working, or isn’t it? And they have to understand how law works.”

Burris said whether it’s cigarette taxes or portion control laws, those interested in making a difference in public health can’t sit on the sidelines when it comes to policymaking.

“There is no public health without law, and there is no law without politics,” he said. “Which means, to some degree, everybody who cares about public health has got to be engaged in some way.”

Burris began his career in public health law during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He was the editor of the first systematic legal analysis of HIV in the country, and spent several years lobbying and litigating on behalf of people with HIV as an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. He has served as a consultant to numerous United States and international organizations, including the United Nations Development Programme, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Institute of Medicine and to the producers of the Oscar-winning film, “Philadelphia.”

Burris said working on the 1993 movie was a very personal, emotional experience. He said the first time he saw it, he wept throughout the entire screening.

“It really was an effort to tell a real life legal story,” he said. “One thing that I had been very conscious of at the time representing my clients was how much they suffered. And how little time they had in relation to court. I literally told people about settlements as they lay on their death bed on a respirator.”

Following Burris’ lecture, a panel discussion will be led by:

• Jamie F. Chriqui, Ph.D., M.H.S., professor in the Division of Health Policy and Administration and co-director of Health Policy Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health

• Aila Hoss, J.D., visiting assistant professor, IU McKinney

• Kosali Simon, Ph.D., Herman B. Wells endowed professor, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs

The lecture and award presentation are scheduled from noon to 2 p.m. in the Wynne Courtroom and atrium of Inlow Hall, 530 W. New York St., Indianapolis. A light lunch is also planned at 11:30 a.m. in the atrium. This is a free event, but registration is required.

The event will provide two hours of continuing legal education credit, pending approval.

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