Why ‘personal responsibility’ isn’t always the answer for better health  

A woman wearing a blue top is holding a red shopping basket filled with groceries and looking at items in a supermarket aisle.

By Dr. Norman Swan 

Ensuring people have agency over their own health and wellbeing is something I’m passionate about. People deserve the tools, resources and knowledge to make the right decisions about their health and wellbeing. The trouble is that it’s often beyond control of the individual. Obesity, for example, is not actually the fault of the person It’s the system, market failure, poorly designed suburbs and an under-regulated food industry. 

The high prevalence of obesity is not the result of a sudden onset of weak will. It’s our social, economic and physical environment. Things like climate change, lack of transport, poor housing, food insecurity, globalized manufacture and marketing of highly processed, cheap and empty calories and inadequate infrastructure lead to individuals sensing a loss of control and despair. The issues then compound and it becomes harder for people to manage healthy eating and exercise. It impedes our mental health and wellbeing and leads to things like obesity, which in turn reduces our life expectancy.

The good thing is it’s a fixable problem. With better regulation, more intelligent taxation and action by the government, particularly at a federal level, we can address the issues that lead to poor health. I urge everyone to lobby your state and federal MPs to demand better regulation of food marketing, supply and pricing, better infrastructure to encourage exercise, active and cheaper transport and town planning that facilitates healthier living.

It’s bigger than just you and me. Better health is biological, political, social and community-based. But we, as individuals, can act to drive real change by demanding it. If we don’t want our children to have a reduced life expectancy, we’ve got to come together and make change, so that the next generation of Queenslanders can have agency over their own health.  

Dr Norman Swan

Dr Norman Swan hosts RN’s Health Report and during the COVID-19 pandemic, has co-hosted Coronacast, a podcast on the coronavirus. Norman is also a reporter and commentator on the ABC’s 7.30, Midday, News Breakfast and Four Corners and a guest host on RN Breakfast.