HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Reflections on the 4th of July

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, the use of fireworks in the US has increased ten-fold over the past 25 years, reaching over 250 million pounds. At the same time, injury rates per pound have fallen approximately ten-fold as well.  Nonetheless, because of the immense increase in consumption, overall costs of fireworks injuries have continued to rise, to well over $100 million. And that doesn't count property damage, wildfire risks, or just plain air pollution.  The most typical victim is a male, age 10-14.

So, in posting on this 4th of July, I am tempted to reflect whether a ban on the sale of fireworks for private use would be an intolerable infringement on liberty.  It wouldn't be a tax, and it wouldn't be like forbidding sin or making you eat your broccoli.  But it would restrict a liberty that might well be regarded as one of the most traditional, a liberty even celebrated in our national anthem.  One can imagine howls of protest about a ban being unAmerican, another example of government trying to tell ordinary people how to live their lives.

Interestingly, this is not the reported public reaction to the many local bans being imposed in my state of Utah.  People are said to understand the need for bans and even cancellations of public fireworks displays, not to protect them or their children from themselves, but because of the serious fire dangers they pose. At the state level, Utah's governor is even entertaining the possibility of a ban on target practice, because of the risks of sparks causing fire dangers. This in a state with remarkably permissive concealed carry laws—the only statutory restrictions are airports and federal buildings—which even allow people to carry loaded weapons into schools and hospitals.

All this suggests to me that the rhetoric supporting universal health care in the United States may be seriously misconceived.  Suppose that instead all the focus on the need of individuals for insurance or the importance of encouraging healthy behaviors, we started instead with public dangers: infectious disease, toxic exposures, unhealthy air.  In other words, suppose we started health reform as the "old" public health, in a really serious way, with sufficient funding and ready availability.  We might just get used to seeing what governments can do for us all--something at least in my judgment we are very much in need of today.

Happy Fourth of July everyone!

- Leslie P. Francis

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