How Health Law and Policy Changes Affect Public Consumption Habits

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Over the years, health laws and policies have had an effect on everything from fast food to marijuana. But as these laws and policies change, do those changes have a direct impact on public consumption? There is plenty of research that suggests they do. However in some cases, it appears that less strict laws lead to more responsible consumption, such as with marijuana and alcohol.

When it comes to cigarettes and trans fats, it appears that raised awareness and more strict laws work to decrease consumption. Is it possible then, that awareness is the most important element? Perhaps it is only by raising awareness that public opinion can be swayed, and beneficial laws can then be made to protect public health.

To learn more, refer to the infographic below created by the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University’s Online Master’s in Health Law and Policy program.


Infographic on How Health Law and Policy Changes Affect Public Consumption Habits

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Marijuana Usage

In 2009, the United States government declared that medical marijuana prosecutions were going to be a low priority, and the use of medical marijuana rose dramatically in states like Colorado, Michigan and Montana. Arizona and Colorado also now have larger populations of medical marijuana users between the ages of 18 and 30. States that have seen an increase in medical marijuana have also seen a decrease in opioid abuse, and even less addictions to drugs like heroin.

The increase of medical marijuana use in these states has not yet been shown to increase negative consequences. It has however, raised revenue and generated new types of businesses in the areas. Data have shown that the consumption of marijuana increased only slightly when compared to the increase of 2009, when the drug was legalized for recreational use. The consumption of alcohol and other drugs (such as cocaine and heroin) have had little shift since the legalization of marijuana in these states. Violent and property crimes have also not undergone much of a change.

Alcohol Consumption

When we look at alcohol, dry counties have a fatality rate from DUI accidents of 6.8 per 10,000 people. This is three times higher than the rate in wet counties. Prohibiting alcohol also has had no effect on suicide rates as was originally hoped. In Kentucky, meth lab busts are also significantly higher in dry counties, suggesting that the production of meth is much higher in areas with strict alcohol laws.

The increase in meth production and DUI fatalities, plus the lack of suicide decrease, present the argument that stricter alcohol laws have an adverse effect on public consumption, whereas less strict laws combined with more education and more health warnings/labels might encourage more responsible consumption.

Cigarette Smoking

Typically, men and women both prefer cigarette brands that have higher name recognition. This is why, in the past, tobacco companies spent a considerable amount of time and money building brand awareness and making their product look good (in packaging and ads.) However, tobacco has been found to lead to many unwanted health problems and even death. Thus, the once attractive cigarette packaging is now being covered by mandatory health labels and images.

In Australia, after the government replaced branded cigarette packaging with plain packs and displayed health hazard labels, pack display visibility dropped by 15% and the number of active smokers dropped by 23%. Additionally, it is estimated that the Center for Disease Control’s anti-smoking campaign in 2012 prevented 16,000 tobacco-related deaths in the U.S., and according to the World Health Organization, more than 25% of smokers said the new warning led them to consider quitting.

Trans Fats

Trans fats are now one of the leading causes of death in developed countries, and recent laws have been created to ensure companies eventually drop trans fats from their ingredients. Just a 2% increase in trans fats can raise the chances of heart disease by 23%! Since awareness has been rising — and trans fats have had to be listed on food labels since 2006 — the average trans fats content of consumers’ meals has dropped from 3 grams to 0.5 grams. Abolishing trans fats altogether would save roughly $140 billion over 20 years in health care and other costs. The Food and Drug Administration has asked to completely abolish trans fats in food by 2018.

Trans fats are labeled as partially hydrogenated oils on the labels of foods that contain them, and are not considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration. They are typically seen in what many would call “junk” food and fast food, but may also be included in other products we are not aware of. The FDA’s policy and regulation will most likely not affect the consumption of these foods, but rather, the way these foods are made. This is another way in which health law indirectly affects consumption — and most likely with little backlash from the general public.

As with most things, simply banning a potentially harmful substance does not decrease its consumption. In fact, it can often increase irresponsible consumption or even lead to the consumption of even worse substances. Instead, informing the public about health dangers and making those substances look less appealing can drive change in the public view, which will then lead to more favorable health laws.

When it comes to eating, for example, public awareness around healthy and unhealthy foods and ingredients has been shown to lead to healthier diet choices, reducing health costs for individuals and the United States alike. It has also led to laws that further help to guide healthy eating standards.

By also regulating how products are made — such as banning the use of trans fat — some laws can improve the general public’s health without having to issue restrictions or bans that backfire (e.g., prohibition.) It’s a delicate balance that lawmakers and government agencies must strive for.

Of course, health laws do not only affect people, they also affect companies. The producers of products from cigarettes to alcohol to marijuana and even fast food have had many battles with lawmakers. These companies want to ensure that laws are passed in ways that allow them to create products the public will buy, so they stay in business.