TUESDAY, June 21 (HealthDay News) -- Because policies that don't specifically deal with health can still influence Americans' well-being, the potential health effects of major legislation or regulations need to be considered by all levels of government, says an Institute of Medicine report released Tuesday.

Federal and local government also need to update legislation to meet current challenges, such as the obesity epidemic and the threat of bioterrorism, the report said.

The authors noted that policies enacted in one area can have wide-reaching health implications. For instance, agricultural subsidies influence the availability and affordability of certain foods; zoning policies affect the number of parks; and education policies have an impact on children's intellectual and physical development.

"The law has been an essential factor for improving the public's health through policies such as decreasing tobacco use, increasing road safety, and ensuring the greater healthfulness of our food and water," report committee chair Marthe Gold, a professor and chair of community health and social medicine at City College of New York, said in an IOM news release.

"Our report recommends several actions that will ensure that federal, state, and local public health agencies make full use of a broad array of proven legal tools that can improve population health," she said.

The report, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also urged federal and state policymakers to review and revise public health laws to tackle today's health challenges.

"Many public health statutes defining the roles and authorities of government health agencies have not been updated in decades and lack specific power to address current needs," the authors wrote in the news release.

"Public health laws need to provide health agencies the authority to address concerns such as obesity and other chronic diseases, injuries, substance abuse, immunization registries, and surveillance systems that could help detect bioterrorist attacks or disease outbreaks," they continued.

Also, federal and state governments should establish minimum public health standards and allow lower levels of government to tighten the restrictions if they feel it's needed, the authors said.

The report also recommended that state and local governments form health councils to work with other public agencies and private and nonprofit groups to develop community health improvement plans.

The IOM, under the umbrella of the National Academy of Sciences, is charged with providing objective, evidence-based advice to legislators, health professionals and the public.

More information

To learn more about controlling tobacco use, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.