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Food Drug Law J. 2012;67(1):103-22, iii-iv.

Nudging towards nutrition? Soft paternalism and obesity-related reform.


Obesity is one of the most contentious issues facing the United States today. Some researchers warn of an obesity "epidemic" that poses a grave threat to our nation's health, while others attack these claims as alarmist and misguided. This divide reinforces the political schism between advocates of government intervention and anti-regulatory groups. As a result, obesity science finds itself entangled in partisan battles that leave little room for compromise. This paper explores the potential for the political philosophy of soft paternalism to provide a regulatory framework that may appeal to both sides of the obesity reform debate. Soft paternalism draws upon social science research in order to develop policies that encourage better decision-making, while preserving individual choice. Applying this framework to the issue of obesity, I look at two areas of potential reform: 1) information-based policies such as nutritional label design, and 2) policies that affect default choices, such as portion size norms. I find that while soft paternalism is an appealing framework that offers many promising reforms, it is not a panacea. Instead, I argue that these proposals should be considered on their own merit, not as a complete solution precluding other measures. In addition, in light of potential criticism concerning the stigmatizing effect of some obesity-related measures, I suggest that reforms based on soft paternalism can and should be tailored to promote more mindful eating habits. With these concerns in mind, I conclude that soft paternalism is a promising approach that warrants serious consideration by policymakers.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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