Backward- and forward-looking responsibility for obesity: policies from WHO, the EU and England

Eur J Public Health. 2015 Oct;25(5):845-8. doi: 10.1093/eurpub/ckv076. Epub 2015 Apr 29.


Background: In assigning responsibility for obesity prevention a distinction may be drawn between who is responsible for the rise in obesity prevalence ('backward-looking responsibility'), and who is responsible for reducing it ('forward-looking responsibility').

Methods: We study how the two aspects of responsibility figure in the obesity policies of WHO (European Region), the EU and the Department of Health (England).

Results: Responsibility for the emergence and reduction of obesity is assigned to both individuals and other actors to different degrees in the policies, combining an individual and a systemic view. The policies assign backward-looking responsibility to individuals, the social environment, the authorities and businesses. When it comes to forward-looking responsibility, individuals are expected to play a central role in reducing and preventing obesity, but other actors are also urged to act. WHO assigns to individuals the lowest degree of backward- and forward-looking responsibility, and the Department of Health (England) assigns them the highest degree of responsibility.

Discussion: Differences in the assignment of backward- and above all forward-looking responsibility could be explained to some extent by the different roles of the three authorities making the plans. WHO is a UN agency with health as its goal, the EU is a liberal economic union with optimization of the internal European market as an important task, and England, as an independent sovereign country, has its own economic responsibilities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • England / epidemiology
  • European Union* / organization & administration
  • Health Policy*
  • Humans
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / prevention & control*
  • Social Responsibility
  • World Health Organization* / organization & administration