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Responsibility for health: personal, social, and environmental
  1. D B Resnik
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr David B Resnik
 NIEHS/NIH, Box 12233, Mail Drop NH06, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709, USA; resnikd{at}

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Most of the discussion in bioethics and health policy concerning social responsibility for health has focused on society’s obligation to provide access to healthcare. While ensuring access to healthcare is an important social responsibility, societies can promote health in many other ways, such as through sanitation, pollution control, food and drug safety, health education, disease surveillance, urban planning and occupational health. Greater attention should be paid to strategies for health promotion other than access to healthcare, such as environmental and public health and health research.

Lifestyle plays a major role in most of the illnesses in industrialised nations.1 Six of the 10 leading factors contributing to the global burden of disease are lifestyle related: unsafe sex, high blood pressure, tobacco use, alcohol use, high cholesterol and obesity.2 Lifestyle-related illnesses also contribute to the rising costs of healthcare. Spending on healthcare accounts for about 16% of the gross domestic product in the USA, or US$1.9 trillion.3 Although smoking has declined steadily there since the 1960s, smoking-related medical expenses are still about US$75.5 billion per year.4 Obesity, which has been climbing in the past two decades, accounts for about US$75 billion in healthcare costs there each year.5 Alcoholism and drug addiction in the USA account for annual healthcare costs of about US$22.5 billion and US$12 billion, respectively.6,7 Federal government spending on healthcare relating to HIV/AIDS is over US$13 billion per year.8

Given the well-documented relationship between lifestyle, disease burden and healthcare costs, it makes economic and medical sense to hold individuals morally responsible for their health-related choices. While this view has a great deal of intuitive appeal, it also faces numerous objections.9–12 First, holding individuals entirely responsible for their own health conflicts with medicine’s obligation to treat the sick and society’s obligation …

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  • Competing interests: none declared.

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