Are healthful behavior change policies ever unethical?

Public health experts often assume that any policy promoting healthful behavior change is inherently and self-evidently ethical. This assumption is incorrect. This Viewpoint describes why evaluating the ethics of a policy to promote healthful behavior change should require (1) valuing consequences for wellbeing proportionately to consequences for health, (2) valuing changes to the distributional equity of health and wellbeing together with their aggregate improvement, and (3) anticipating and surveilling for unintended consequences sufficiently important to offset benefits. I illustrate these three requirements through a hypothetical salt restriction policy, which is unethical if it evokes strong preferences that detract from wellbeing, disproportionately confers health benefits to those who are already healthy, or elicits unintended consequences that offset health benefits. I discuss why analogies of salt restriction mandates are inappropriate. In summary, public health decision-makers should employ more structured, explicit and comprehensive criteria when considering the ethical consequences of policies.

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Full citation:
Braithwaite RS (2022).
Are healthful behavior change policies ever unethical?
Journal of Public Health Policy, 43 (4), 685-695. doi: 10.1057/s41271-022-00372-8. PMCID: PMC9750897.