Obesity: Personal Responsibility, Public Policy

A new study published in PLOS ONE flirts with a false choice between personal responsibility and public policy. The authors, led by Natalia Lee, found that both U.S. and Australian public opinion accepted addictive foods as an important factor contributing to obesity. Most accepted a biological, genetic, or environmental basis for obesity. Yet they found little public support for measures like taxing junk foods that contribute to obesity.

The authors were quick — perhaps too quick — to conclude that personal responsibility and public policy exist in opposition:

The strongest opposition comes from the food industry itself that disavows responsibility for creating obesogenic environments and stress individual responsibility for eating. The public seem to be receptive to these arguments. Advocates of public health policies for obesity should anticipate resistance to policy measures that are seen to ignore obese individuals’ responsibility for overeating and excess weight.

Two basic facts get in the way of this analysis. First, given the limited evidence base for public health measures to reduce and prevent obesity, it’s perfectly reasonable for the public to be skeptical. Telling people “this ought to work” is no substitute for evidence that it does. The experiences with food deserts and menu labeling provide cautionary tales of how something that ought to work yields frustrating results.

It is also important to bear in mind that public policy is not a substitute for personal responsibility. They work synergistically. Public safety laws reinforce the need for safe driving. Pollution laws elevate the importance or responsible corporate behavior.

We need a better evidence base for public health interventions that work and we need to put them into action, so that people who want to live healthier lives have a better chance of succeeding. And by the way, who doesn’t want a healthier life?

Click here to read the study in PLOS ONE.

Life, photograph © Mike Bitzenhofer / flickr

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