Applying Law and Policy Solutions to Public Health Challenges in the Coming Decade

This content was part of the Healthy People 2020 Law and Health Policy project, which ended in 2020.

Healthy People 2020 Law and Health Policy Project Webinar Summary

Law and Health Policy

The Healthy People 2020 Law and Health Policy Project webinar held on February 20, 2019 — Applying Law and Policy Solutions to Public Health Challenges in the Coming Decade — examined opportunities to incorporate law and policy approaches to achieve the targets for the next iteration of Healthy People, Healthy People 2030. It also examined how cities across America are using policies to protect and promote the health of their communities.

Don Wright

Don Wright, MD, MPH, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health and Director of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), gave an overview of the Healthy People Initiative, the role that law and policy have played over time, and the development of Healthy People 2030. ODPHP also shared information about the Law and Health Policy Project.

Joel Teitelbaum

Joel Teitelbaum, JD, associate professor and Director of the Hirsh Health Law and Policy Program at The George Washington University and a member of the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Objectives for 2030, shared background on the recommendations of the Secretary’s Advisory Committee and the role that law and policy could play in achieving the goals of Healthy People 2030.

Shelley Hearne

Shelley Hearne, DrPH, President of the CityHealth Initiative, described 9 evidence-based policy interventions that cities and other localities can adopt to improve population health, and she discussed how this work could provide lessons for Healthy People 2030. She also explained CityHealth’s methodology for selecting and evaluating policies and ranked the 40 largest U.S. cities based on the policies they have in place.

About Healthy People and the Law and Health Policy Project

For several decades, Healthy People has been providing science-based national objectives and ambitious 10-year targets to improve the health of the nation. In this way, the initiative serves as a roadmap for the nation’s health promotion and disease prevention efforts. It provides a way to understand where we are now and to plan for where we need to be, and it offers guidance about how to get there during the next decade. Healthy People engages a network of multidisciplinary stakeholders at all levels to ensure that the initiative is relevant and responsive to the needs of public health practitioners and others — and that it identifies promising strategies and interventions that communities can use to make Healthy People actionable.

This work is led by ODPHP and receives guidance from topic area workgroups and the Federal Interagency Workgroup (FIW), which includes representatives from more than 30 departments, agencies, and offices. Healthy People is also supported by a network of Healthy People Coordinators in state and territorial health departments, as well as a consortium of organizations, agencies, businesses, schools and universities, faith-based organizations, and government entities with expertise in programs, policy, and research focused on health.

The Law and Health Policy Project was a collaboration between ODPHP, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the CDC Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) that aimed to improve the health of communities through sharing information about evidence-based law and policy interventions. The project used the best data to describe the health objectives or issues being addressed, and it created reports examining the relationship between population health and law and policy interventions — specifically how law and policy could be useful tools to improve health.

Law and Health Policy Project Resources and Activities:

  • In-depth topic-specific reports
  • Bright Spots, which showcase ways legal and policy interventions can improve health in communities
  • Webinar series highlighting legal and policy research and approaches to address public health
  • Resources to support the development of Healthy People 2030

Role of Laws and Policies in the Healthy People Initiative

Laws and policies have been used to help create, strengthen, and support the systems and infrastructure that protect the Nation’s health and promote fair and realistic opportunities for individuals to optimize their own health. They have been critical components of Healthy People since the inception of the initiative in 1979. As seen in Figure 1, every iteration has included some objectives and targets that expressly require the adoption or enforcement of a law or policy. In addition, for the first time the mission statement for Healthy People 2020 called for collaboration, and specifically for actions to “strengthen policies and improve practices that are driven by the best available evidence and knowledge.”

Figure 1: Law and Policy in Healthy People 1990 to 2020

DecadeObjectives Related to Law and PolicyTopic Areas with Law and Policy ObjectivesRelevant Topic Areas
Healthy People 19904 of 226 objectives3 of 15 topic areasToxic Agent and Radiation Control, Smoking and Health, Nutrition
Healthy People 200027 of 319 objectives110 of 22 topic areasTobacco, Substance Abuse: Alcohol and Other Drugs, Violent and Abusive Behavior, Unintentional Injuries, Occupational Safety and Health, Environmental Health, Food and Drug Safety, Cancer, Diabetes and Chronic Disabling Conditions, Immunization and Infectious Diseases
Healthy People 201023 of ~1,000 objectives26 of 28 topic areasEnvironmental Health, Injury and Violence Prevention, Physical Activity and Fitness, Public Health Infrastructure, Substance Abuse, Tobacco Use
Healthy People 202059 of >1,200 objectives210 of 42 topic areasAdolescent Health; Early and Middle Childhood; Environmental Health; Injury and Violence Prevention; Maternal, Infant, and Child Health; Nutrition and Weight Status; Physical Activity; Preparedness; Substance Abuse; Tobacco Use


1In HP2000, some objectives were included under more than one topic area. These duplicate objectives were given more than one objective number (e.g., 3.11 and 10.18). For this exercise, these objectives are counted twice to reflect that they are in both topic areas.

2In HP2010 and HP2020, some objectives are grouped under a main objective “header.” The sub-objectives are the measurable objectives. The number of relevant objectives reflects all measurable objectives that are related to law and policy.

However, while the number of objectives that have explicitly referenced law and policy has increased, the majority are still concentrated in a few topic areas, such as tobacco use. This trend is anticipated to continue with Healthy People 2030. The proposed slate of objectives that went out for public comment included 6 objectives that called for a legal or policy strategy; of these, 4 covered tobacco issues and the remaining objectives focused on environmental health and physical activity.