Is Obesity Policy in England Fit for Purpose? Analysis of Government Strategies and Policies, 1992-2020

Milbank Q. 2021 Mar;99(1):126-170. doi: 10.1111/1468-0009.12498. Epub 2021 Jan 19.


Policy Points This analysis finds that government obesity policies in England have largely been proposed in a way that does not readily lead to implementation; that governments rarely commission evaluations of previous government strategies or learn from policy failures; that governments have tended to adopt less interventionist policy approaches; and that policies largely make high demands on individual agency, meaning they rely on individuals to make behavior changes rather than shaping external influences and are thus less likely to be effective or equitable. These findings may help explain why after 30 years of proposed government obesity policies, obesity prevalence and health inequities still have not been successfully reduced. If policymakers address the issues identified in this analysis, population obesity could be tackled more successfully, which has added urgency given the COVID-19 pandemic.

Context: In England, the majority of adults, and more than a quarter of children aged 2 to 15 years live with obesity or excess weight. From 1992 to 2020, even though the government published 14 obesity strategies in England, the prevalence of obesity has not been reduced. We aimed to determine whether such government strategies and policies have been fit for purpose regarding their strategic focus, nature, basis in theory and evidence, and implementation viability.

Method: We undertook a mixed-methods study, involving a document review and analysis of government strategies either wholly or partially dedicated to tackling obesity in England. We developed a theory-based analytical framework, using content analysis and applied thematic analysis (ATA) to code all policies. Our interpretation drew on quantitative findings and thematic analysis.

Findings: We identified and analyzed 14 government strategies published from 1992 to 2020 containing 689 wide-ranging policies. Policies were largely proposed in a way that would be unlikely to lead to implementation; the majority were not interventionist and made high demands on individual agency, meaning that they relied on individuals to make behavior changes rather than shaping external influences, and are thus less likely to be effective or to reduce health inequalities.

Conclusions: The government obesity strategies' failure to reduce the prevalence of obesity in England for almost 30 years may be due to weaknesses in the policies' design, leading to a lack of effectiveness, but they may also be due to failures of implementation and evaluation. These failures appear to have led to insufficient or no policy learning and governments proposing similar or identical policies repeatedly over many years. Governments should learn from their earlier policy failures. They should prioritize policies that make minimal demands on individuals and have the potential for population-wide reach so as to maximize their potential for equitable impacts. Policies should be proposed in ways that readily lead to implementation and evaluation.

Keywords: government; obesity; policy; policymaking; public health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / epidemiology
  • England / epidemiology
  • Government
  • Health Policy / economics
  • Health Policy / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Humans
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / prevention & control*
  • Pandemics
  • Program Evaluation
  • Public Health / legislation & jurisprudence
  • SARS-CoV-2