Special Section: Life, Liberty and Public Health: A Symposium

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by Dr. William London

What public health services are appropriate for government to provide? Do contemporary public health practices intrude unreasonably on personal liberty? And, in trying to protect people from their own "behavioral risk factors," do public health professionals actually contribute to public health problems?

This issue of Priorities explores these questions in a special section-a symposium on Life, Liberty and Public Health. The symposium takes as its starting point Jacob Sullum's provocative essay "What the Doctor Orders," which appeared originally in the January 1996 issue of Reason magazine. The article is reprinted here in its entirety. In his essay Sullum, who is the senior editor of Reason, questions the wisdom, the propriety and the effectiveness of various actions that governments have taken or might take to modify personal lifestyles in the interest of public health.

The appearance of the article in Reason prompted a letter to the editor of that magazine from ACSH President Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan and myself. The ACSH letter and a response to it from Reason Editor Sullum were both printed in the April issue of Reason. The letter and Sullum's response are also reprinted here (see page 17).

In planning this special issue of Priorities, ACSH invited a range of medical and public health professionals-men and women with diverse perspectives and varied backgrounds-to offer their own brief commentaries on Sullum's Reason article. The seven very different essays we received are all included in the symposium.

An eighth commentator, former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, graciously agreed to address three questions concerning issues raised by Sullum's essay. We present the three questions and Dr. Koop's brief answers to them as a sidebar to the longer responses.

Coming full circle, the symposium concludes with Jacob Sullum's own response to the Priorities panelists' commentaries.

Priorities will continue to address controversies concerning public health practice in future issues. We are particularly interested in reading-and publishing-our readers' reactions to this issue's special symposium. We hope to print a selection of readers' comments on our symposium on Life, Liberty and Public Health in the next issue.