Obesity, law and personal responsibility: conference report

16 Jan 2007

A recent conference titled "Obesity: should there be a law against it?" raised issues about the environment in which lifestyle choices are made writes Ruth Armstrong.

A recent conference raised issues about the environment in which lifestyle choices are made. Even before it had started, the recent 1-day conference "Obesity: should there be a law against it?" provoked controversy. The very title of the conference, convened by the University of Sydney’s Centre for Health Governance, Law and Ethics and the Australian and New Zealand Institute of Health Law and Ethics, elicited outraged responses. The recipient of much of the outrage, Conference Convener, Roger Magnusson (Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Sydney), explained to the conference attendees that law’s perceived role in society is all about coercion. While law is a potent tool for public health and disease prevention, it needs to be able to “justify its involvement and defend itself from ideological attacks”. The conference’s quirky title went to the very core of the issue. Surely, adults have a right to choose to be overweight if it fits with their desired lifestyle. Shouldn’t the law stay away from our refrigerators and couches? An insightful early question from the floor was, “How can the law help frame the debate which is now framed as freedom of choice versus paternalism?” A distinguished international group of speakers presented a range of approaches to this dilemma.

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