July 10, 2014

Q : Do you remember when you first realized a career in law was a good fit for you?

Some would say that I was an argumentative child. I would say that I liked to challenge assumptions and the status quo. I can remember my dad telling me, when I was very young, that I should channel this argumentative side and become a lawyer. I guess that stuck.

Q: When did you identify with the notion of law as a tool for improving public health? Why did that excite you?

When I was 16 years old, my mother died in a car accident. She was fiercely supportive and protective of the people she loved and the causes she believed in, and her death inspired me to become an advocate for the health and wellbeing of others. My mum’s death was preventable, and I think that’s what really strikes me about non-communicable diseases. Much of the heart diseases, cancer, diabetes and lung disease we see today occurs as a result of tobacco consumption, harmful use of alcohol and overconsumption of saturated fats, salt and sugars. I am passionate about the use of law as a tool to reduce consumption of these unhealthy products, thus helping to avoid preventable death and disability.

[Read Sarah’s post about her mother’s influence: https://oneill.law.georgetown.edu/in-celebration-of-our-mothers-key-supporters-of-our-health-and-wellbeing/]

Q: What was your path to the O’Neill Institute?

I studied law in Melbourne, Australia, and commenced my career as a plaintiff class action lawyer. I represented people suffering from asbestos and tobacco related diseases and people with disabilities as a result of exposure to the drug thalidomide while in utero. Following the settlement of the thalidomide class action in Australia and New Zealand, I decided to refocus my career on using law and policy to prevent death and disability, rather than litigation as a forms of redress.

I was fortunate to receive a Rotary Global Grant Scholarship and a Georgetown Global Health Law Scholarship, which enabled me to undertake my Master of Law in Global Health Law here at Georgetown Law. During the LL.M., I became familiar with the O’Neill Institute, and its great work to promote the use of law to achieve public health outcomes. After graduation from the LL.M. program, I joined the O’Neill Institute as a Law Fellow.

Q: What are your current projects at the O’Neill Institute?

I work very closely with the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean (WHO/EMRO). The region comprises 22 member states in the Middle East and North Africa. Non-communicable diseases are the number one cause of death and disability in the region, and we are working together with WHO/EMRO to help national governments implement laws and regulations that help reduce smoking and improve people’s diets, two key risk factors for non-communicable diseases.

Law can help address non-communicable disease risk factors in a variety of ways. We often think of law as a means of banning behaviors and actions. An example of this would be laws banning smoking in public places. Law can also be more subtle – in that it can be used to discourage unhealthy behaviors and encourage healthier behaviors. For example, we can enact tax laws to discourage the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and we can complement taxes on unhealthy products with subsidies on fruits and vegetables, to ensure people have access to affordable, healthy foods.

Q: What excites you most about your work?

We are developing tools and technical guidance that will help country level officials implement effective laws to reduce smoking rates and reduce consumption of trans fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. Although law-making takes time, this project has the potential to make meaningful health improvements for huge numbers of people in the Eastern Mediterranean region where my work is focused.

Another great thing about working on this project is that we are collaborating with and learning from many international and regional experts in medicine, public health, law and development. It is great to work as part of a multidisciplinary team that works together to translate cutting edge medical and scientific evidence into effective laws and policies.

Q: In the twitter aviary, who are your top recommendations to follow?

Mary Anne Franks of Miami Law School @ma_franks provides excellent commentary on gun control, a vital area of public health law in the United States.

Dr. Slim Slama of WHO/EMRO @docfromtheblock provides great information about preventing and controlling non-communicable diseases in the Eastern Mediterranean region, including among refugees and displaced persons.

Q: Who inspires you?

Our lead plaintiff in the Australian thalidomide class action, Lyn Rowe. Lyn was born without arms and legs as a result of her mum taking thalidomide to help with her morning sickness. Lyn does important work lecturing school students on “seeing the person, not the disability.” She has a wonderfully dry sense of humor and was a true pleasure to work with.

Q: Do you have a favorite SCOTUS justice? Why?

Sarah: I’m Australian, so I’m going to play the foreigner card here and say that my favorite Justice of the High Court of Australia is Michael Kirby.