Public Health Nutrition

HOT TOPIC – Food environment

Public beliefs about the causes of obesity and attitudes towards policy initiatives in Great Britain

Rebecca J Beekena1 c1 and Jane Wardlea1

a1 Health Behaviour Research Centre, Department of Epidemiology & Public Health, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK


Objective To assess attributions for overweight and the level of support for policy initiatives in Great Britain.

Design Cross-sectional. Respondents indicated their agreement (5-point scales: strongly disagree to strongly agree) to three potential causes of overweight (environment, genes, willpower) and five policies (free weight-loss treatment, taxing unhealthy foods, healthy lifestyle campaigns, food labelling, advertising restrictions).

Setting Data were collected as part of a computer-assisted, face-to-face Omnibus survey of adults (aged >15 years) from across Great Britain in April 2012 carried out by a market research company.

Subjects A population-representative sample of British adults (n 1986).

Results More people attributed overweight to the food environment (61 %) and lack of willpower (57 %) than to genes (45 %). Policy support was highest for healthy lifestyle campaigns (71 %) and food labelling (66 %), and lowest for taxing unhealthy foods (32 %). Food environment attributions were associated with higher support for all policies (P < 0·001). Genetic attributions were associated with higher support for free weight-loss treatments and healthy lifestyle campaigns (P < 0·001), but not other policies. Attributions to lack of willpower were not associated differentially with support for any policies (P > 0·01).

Conclusions Belief that overweight is caused by the food environment or genes – both seen as outside individual control – was associated with greater support for government policies to prevent and treat obesity. Improving awareness of the multiple causes of obesity could facilitate acceptance of policy action to reduce obesity prevalence.

(Received January 28 2013)

(Revised May 10 2013)

(Accepted June 05 2013)

(Online publication July 18 2013)


  • Obesity;
  • Overweight;
  • Public opinion;
  • Government policy


c1 Corresponding author: Email