The International Law of Overweight and Obesity

41 Pages Posted: 20 Jun 2013

See all articles by Krista Nadakavukaren Schefer

Krista Nadakavukaren Schefer

Juristische Fakultät, Universität Basel; University of Bern - Institute of European and International Economic Law

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Date Written: June 14, 2013


The number of overweight and obese persons is more than the number of those starving. The parallel growth of non-communicable diseases has triggered an alarmed response from the global public health system, which sees itself confronted by rising health-care costs from “lifestyle diseases” even as it continues to struggle with the economic and social burden of contagious disease. Although global public health attention to the “obesity epidemic” is only starting, the evidence points to a combination of causes and effects that span economic, political, social, and cultural aspects of eating and exercise. This makes the new global health environment more complex and more contentious than it was in the recent past. Clarity, it seems, exists only on one point for the mainstream public health advocates: overweight and obesity is a problem that governments need to address on the local, national, and international levels.

Seeing weight as a problem to be targeted by governments, however, does not capture the full range of legal issues surrounding overweight and obesity. Because it is people that are overweight or obese, individual rights are unavoidably affected by measures impacting body weight. Thus, international human rights law must be given substantial attention when developing an international law of weight. Yet, while some human rights aim to protect individuals from overweight and obesity, other rights would protect overweight or obese individuals from governmental attempts to make them “healthy”.

This article sets out the fundamentals of international overweight and obesity law, pointing out the legal approaches of global public health and human rights interests. It attempts to set a framework for further detailed examinations of the question of how weight can best be approached by international rules that must answer to societal concerns while protecting the dignity of individuals where those two interests collide.

Keywords: obesity, overweight, global public health law, right to health, right to food, non-discrimination

Suggested Citation

Nadakavukaren Schefer, Krista, The International Law of Overweight and Obesity (June 14, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Krista Nadakavukaren Schefer (Contact Author)

Juristische Fakultät, Universität Basel ( email )

United States

University of Bern - Institute of European and International Economic Law ( email )

Hallerstrasse 6
Bern, CH-3012

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