Primum Non Nocere: Obesity Stigma and Public Health

Abstract

Several recent anti-obesity campaigns appear to embrace stigmatization of obese individuals as a public health strategy. These approaches seem to be based on the fundamental assumptions that (1) obesity is largely under an individual’s control and (2) stigmatizing obese individuals will motivate them to change their behavior and will also result in successful behavior change. The empirical evidence does not support these assumptions: Although body weight is, to some degree, under individuals’ personal control, there are a range of biopsychosocial barriers that make weight regulation difficult. Furthermore, there is accumulating evidence that stigmatizing obese individuals decreases their motivation to diet, exercise, and lose weight. Public health campaigns should focus on facilitating behavioral change, rather than stigmatizing obese people, and should be grounded in the available empirical evidence. Fundamentally, these campaigns should, first, do no harm.

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Correspondence to Lenny R. Vartanian.

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A version of this paper was presented at a symposium titled “Public Health, Ethics and Non-Communicable Diseases” hosted by the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine (VELiM) and the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney University on October 8, 2012.

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Vartanian, L.R., Smyth, J.M. Primum Non Nocere: Obesity Stigma and Public Health. Bioethical Inquiry 10, 49–57 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-012-9412-9

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Keywords

  • Obesity
  • Stigma
  • Public health
  • Health campaign