Law has an increasingly important role to play in the prevention of cancer and other non-communicable (transferrable) diseases, say leading academics.
At a recent two-day conference convened by the University of Sydney Law School and L'Union International Contre le Cancer (International Union Against Cancer) academics came together to discuss how the law can improve the health of the general population.
"The overwhelming majority of people die from non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and a significant proportion of all these diseases are preventable," the University of Sydney's professor Roger Magnusson told Lawyers Weekly.
"If we want to improve the health, the absolute lifespan and the healthy lifespan of Australians, we need to pay attention to these diseases."
According to Magnusson, the conference was a "dry run" for an upcoming plenary session of the World Cancer Congress in which ideas relating to the role of regulation in improving health will be discussed.
"Law and regulation can prevent the preventable components of cancer by addressing risk factors that are common in the population," said Magnusson.
"The preventable risk factors are of course tobacco use, obesity, alcohol misuse, inadequate exercise and ... some environmental exposures."
But Magnusson acknowledges that this concept is really only just beginning to take hold in the international community.
"There wouldn't be a family in Australia that hasn't been touched by cancer, but yet when we talk about law and cancer everyone raises their eyebrows and says, 'What the hell are you talking about?'" he said.
"Prevention is always better than cure, but the vast majority of money in the health system goes towards treating the sick rather than preventing populations from getting sick, and that's a problem."
Magnusson believes that tighter regulation, especially in relation to taxes and advertising, can play a significant role in discouraging risky behaviour that could lead to disease.
"It's not necessary to prohibit behaviour or coerce people in order to improve health and encourage healthier patterns of behaviour in the population," he said.
"No-one is suggesting that you prohibit smoking or people having a beer or choosing whatever food they want to eat. But overall, the population is drinking too much and eating the wrong food and not getting any exercise. Their own self-control is just not doing it at the population level."
Magnusson cites the example of tobacco to demonstrate that regulation can be effective in combating disease-causing behaviour.
"We need a basket of measures [to address these issues], just as we do with tobacco. Just as some of those measures appeared unrealistic 20 years ago, they also appear unrealistic now. But norms change and the tobacco experience shows that regulation works and that regulation is actually needed," he said.
"It may be that we think commercial freedom is more important than rates of disease, and maybe taxpayers are happy to pay more and more for the rising costs of chronic disease, but if we want to reduce those rates we need to consider some new measures."