Obesity is the result of people consistently consuming more calories than they expend. A complex interaction of social and environmental conditions affects both energy consumption and physical activity levels. Health professionals who understand the social and environmental factors related to obesity risk may find it challenging to identify, understand, or develop a strategy to improve the vast array of laws that play a role in shaping our environment and behaviors.

Competency in the use of laws and legal authorities is one of the four core elements of public health legal preparedness. Legal competency" is a particularly important component of a comprehensive strategy to prevent and control obesity because law is so pervasive in affecting the social and physical conditions that impact obesity. Public health practitioners, legal counsel, health care providers, and others need to be able to assess current and proposed laws on obesity risk factors and make effective use of laws as specific obesity prevention and control tools.This paper assesses public health legal competency from two sides: (1) the ability of public health and setting-specific actors to understand and apply relevant laws including knowledge of the consequences of action and inaction; and (2) the ability of policymakers and legal counsel to understand and take into account the potential obesogenic effects of their decisions. The assessment includes the identification of critical gaps in those competencies, which are addressed in the companion action paper. Our assessment starts by identifying the main setting-specific actors who should master public health legal competencies and then describes the five basic types of relevant competencies: (1) understanding and explaining obesity's connection to physical, environmental, and social conditions; (2) identifying laws and policies that affect relevant conditions; (3) identifying and engaging all relevant stakeholders; (4) understanding the process by which laws are developed; and (5) identifying and addressing gaps in the current legal framework.

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2009


Co-written with Alice Ammerman, and Sheila Fleischhacker