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Most public health advocates believe that there are more fundamental justifications for restrictions on individual behavior for the sake of the public health. Beau champ, the philosopher, explores the reasons in his book, The Health of the Republic, arguing that such laws are needed most for behaviors that are common and carry small risks.


Consistent use of seat belts, for example, prevents thousands of deaths and injuries in the population as a whole, although the risk people face on any one trip, when they must decide whether to buckle up, is quite small. While each individual’s choice to take the risk of driving unbuckled may be rational, society’s interest in preventing the thousands of deaths and injuries outweighs the minor inconvenience of obeying the seatbelt law.


While there are legitimate differences of opinion on how to weigh the competing interests in making policy that affects public health, these decisions should be informed by science to the extent possible. The U.S. Constitution does not mention health. Because the Tenth Amendment states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution are being reserved to the States respectively,” public health has been a responsibility primarily of the states.