Health care advocates and policymakers attend Public Health Law Conference

The United States spends more money on health care than any other country in the world. Yet, the U.S ranks low among many major health indicators from the past 35 years, said Dr. Sandro Galea, a physician, epidemiologist, and a dean and Robert A. Knox Professor at Boston University School of Public Health.

“If we spend all our money on living forever, we aren’t spending money to live well,” he said.

Galea was the keynote speaker during the Public Health Law Conference held recently in Chandler, Arizona. He raised a question to an audience of health practitioners, lawyers and advocates — what if America focused on the factors that determine our ability to live healthy lives, instead of what we try to do after we get sick?

The Public Health Law Conference, held Oct. 4-6, included more than 40 different sessions exploring law and policy pathways to improving access to health care, protecting vulnerable populations against health risks and injury, developing protections against discriminatory practices, and strengthening the efforts of local, tribal and state public health agencies.

Policymakers from the Arizona Wellbeing Commons were among the session speakers at this year’s event, whose theme was “Health Justice: Empowering Public Health and Advancing Health Equity.”  

James G. Hodge Jr., professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, offered his expertise on the panel “State Medical Cannabis Regulation: A Public Health Perspective.” Hodge leads the Arizona Wellbeing Commons group on public health and health care services regarding law, policy and equity.

His talk explored how no two medical cannabis programs are alike, but as state programs emerge, there are public health concerns arising relating to advertising, packaging and labeling, pesticide use, and insufficient scientific evidence from the industry.

Hodge began the panel talking about how this past year, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum rescinding the Obama administration’s guidance limiting federal enforcement of medical marijuana. The memorandum, Hodge said, came at a time when more of the nation and states are increasing their acceptance and accessibility of cannabis use. Even large companies have picked up on the emerging cannabis industry, such as Coca-Cola recently partnering with Aurora Cannabis to create a beverage in Canada.

But “there are bills happening to protect individuals from what Sessions is requiring,” he said. For now, however, federal law supersedes state laws.

Leila Barraza, an assistant professor in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona, led a session on “Preventing Communicable Disease Through Vaccination Laws.” The session included an examination of vaccine mandates in secondary institutions, laws that played a role in the 2017 measles outbreak in Minnesota, and the struggle with implementing a California law that removes personal belief exemptions to vaccination requirements for entry to private or public elementary schools.

“College students and their hygiene are a hotbed for disease,” Barraza said at the start of the session, which drew laughs from session attendees. She then presented her findings regarding vaccination policies at UA, ASU, Northern Arizona University and Grand Canyon University.

Barraza provided data on universities with the largest mumps outbreaks since 2014, and how those different states responded to the outbreaks. One takeaway from her presentation was that states may implement minimum standards, but universities ultimately have the power to create their policies.

Hodge and Barrraza both are active members of the Arizona Wellbeing Commons, which brings scientists, clinicians and partners together in a powerful network of researchers to tackle the health issues that impact wellbeing in Arizona. The commons consists of six groups, each focusing on a specific area of interest. They include:

  • Neurobiology, aging, dementias and movement disorders
  • Cancer prevention, detection, management and treatment
  • Viruses, immunity, microbiomes and infectious disease
  • Nutrition, obesity, exercise and lifestyle
  • Mental health, substance abuse, crime and behavior change
  • Public health and health care services: law, policy and equity

During the past year, participants in each group have been learning about one another’s work, gaining an understanding of each challenge from multiple perspectives and working toward developing new collaborations that will lead to solutions.

News and information about the Arizona Wellbeing Commons and upcoming events can be found at For more information, contact Kimberly Fields at [email protected] or [email protected].