Public health: ethical issues


Published 13/11/2007

Public Health Cover
This report considers what the Government, industry and individuals should do to enable people to lead a healthy life.
PH cover crop

The environment in which we live affects whether or not we are able to lead healthy lives. ‘Public health’ is about understanding the factors that influence people’s health, and finding ways of improving it. The emphasis of public health policies is prevention rather than treatment of ill health.


Examples of public health measures include:

  • providing services to help people stop smoking
  • improving the safety and nutritional content of foods
  • providing a clean water supply
  • vaccination schemes to prevent infectious diseases
  • health-and-safety schemes in the work-place
  • advertising campaigns to promote healthy eating, such as the ‘5-a-day’ campaign

Sometimes, options for improving public health could be seen as quite intrusive. Policy makers therefore have to decide which measures are acceptable in different circumstances, and this report considers the ethical issues that arise in making these decisions.

This report considers what the government, industry, other organisations and individuals should do to enable people to lead a healthy life. It uses four case studies to illustrate the ethical issues involved:

  • infectious disease
  • obesity
  • alcohol and smoking
  • fluoridation of water