207084 Policies for populations, not just individuals: “personal responsibility” and policy leadership on obesity prevention and public health nutrition

Tuesday, November 10, 2009: 10:45 AM

Roger S. Magnusson, PhD , Faculty of Law, University of Sydney, Sydney NSW, Australia

Taking personal responsibility for one's life and health is the American way of life. This is good - for individuals. On the other hand, nutrition and obesity prevention strategies that place too much emphasis on motivating individuals to “live right” can have a corrosive impact on public health: undermining political commitment to policy change, or creating false assurance that policy-makers are actually "doing something" about the problem. Changing the entrenched behaviours of individuals is hard enough: policies that depend on replicating this throughout the population face daunting obstacles. Fortunately, changes in the behaviour of populations do not necessarily need to be mediated through the conscious efforts of individuals.


A “population health” approach to obesity prevention and public health nutrition gives priority to interventions that address the economic, environmental and social determinants of diet and weight gain. One advantage of this approach is its capacity to address risk factors to which entire populations are exposed, not just the causes of ill health in individuals.


This paper reviews reasons why policy leadership in obesity, nutrition and chronic disease calls for policies that target populations, not just individuals. A range of examples will be given.

Discussion and significance

The aggregate health impact of political decisions and policies that place unrealistic demands on the personal resources of individuals, is potentially enormous. “Privatizing” the challenges of chronic disease, confining them to the health care setting, and delaying investment in population-wide interventions, remains a serious obstacle to reducing health inequalities and better health outcomes.

Learning Objectives:
Identify a model for locating and critically evaluating different policy responses to public health nutrition, physical activity and obesity prevention Understand the advantages and disadvantages of policies that rely on motivating individuals to change their behaviour, and policies that aim to alter the average behaviour of populations in ways that need not necessarily be mediated through the conscious, vigorous efforts of individuals Understand and evaluate reasons why policies targeting entire populations are urgently needed for obesity prevention and public health nutrition Critically evaluate the argument that a conceptual focus on policies that encourage and motivate individuals (a “personal responsibility approach”) can potentially harm public health by weakening political commitment to social policies, and policies that address the determinants of group behaviour

Keywords: Public Health Policy, Self-sufficiency and Empowerment

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I am a Professor of Health Law & Governance at the University of Sydney. I have 15 years postdoctoral experience in teaching and research. I have Bachelors degrees in Arts and Law, a PhD in Law and a Graduate Diploma in International Development
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.