Health policies and data

The Economics of Prevention


Just released: The 2014 edition of Obesity Update has been released on 27 May 2014


The OECD project on the Economics of Prevention aims to:

  • Develop a conceptual framework on the economics of non-communicable disease prevention, through which the scope and potential for government intervention will be explored;
  • Devise appropriate methods for assessing prevention programmes, taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of conventional methods (e.g. cost-effectiveness analysis) in the area of prevention;
  • Apply the conceptual framework and assessment methods to the analysis of issues and policies in the prevention of conditions linked to diet and physical activity.


The project has been conceived against a background of rising concern about the expected growth in the burden of chronic diseases in OECD countries, particularly in relation to changing lifestyles. The project is primarily focused on the question of whether and to what extent efforts should be made to prevent non-communicable diseases rather than to accept the consequences of treating and managing them.

A common assumption is that individuals are in the best position to judge their own welfare and to maximise that welfare subject to the income constraints they face. However, the markets in which many lifestyle choices are made do not always work efficiently. Therefore, consumption behaviours that originate in such markets may not always lead to improvements in individual and/or societal welfare. Government intervention may be appropriate when “market failures” are significant and could be corrected, for instance, when consumers lack information of the consequences of consumption decisions, or when there are spill-over effects (individual behaviour which affects the welfare of others) or when consumers are unable to make sufficiently rational and informed choices (as is generally the case among children, for example).
Prevention policies may provide opportunities for increasing social welfare, but they may also be used to favour a redistribution of health, i.e. to reduce health disparities among population groups.

Project management

The project is being managed by the Health Division in the Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs. It also entails collaboration with other OECD Directorates, notably the Trade and Agriculture and the Education Directorates, and with other international organisations working on similar issues, in particular the European Commission and the World Health Organization.


  • January 2007: Launch of the project.
  • 27 April 2007: First meeting of national experts from participating countries, to refine the scope of the project and focus its conceptual framework.
  • The first working paper, The Prevention of Lifestyle-Related Chronic Diseases: an Economic Framework, was published in March 2008.
  • 24-25 April 2008: A second meeting of national experts from participating countries was held to discuss the preliminary results of the following streams of work:
    • analysis of past and future trends in lifestyle risk factors and associated chronic diseases, and their determinants;
    • modelling of the cost-effectiveness and distributional impact of interventions to tackle lifestyle risk factors;
    • analysis of policies adopted by the OECD and EU countries to improve diet and physical activity.
  • 29 April 2009: A third meeting of national experts from participating countries was held to discuss the results of a cost-effectiveness analysis of strategies to prevent lifestyle-related chronic diseases.
  • Working papers presenting the findings of the cost-effectiveness analysis for country-specific settings have been published starting from early 2010.
  • A book summarising the overall findings of the OECD Economics of Prevention project was published in September 2010Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat.
  • Findings from the Economics of prevention project were discussed at an OECD Health Ministerial Meeting, held in Paris in October 2010.
  • United Nations High-Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases, New York, 19-20 September 2011:
    The OECD participated in this unprecedented UN event, which brought the current epidemic of chronic diseases to the attention of world leaders. The OECD made important contributions to the consultations leading up to the New York event and to the background documents for the High-Level Meeting, largely based on its programme of work on the economics of chronic disease prevention, in place since 2007.

    The work of the OECD has been focused on health-related behaviours and their disease consequences. A landmark publication on obesity (“Obesity and the economics of prevention: Fit not fat”) was issued in 2010, as the culmination and synthesis of various streams of work on the subject. Further work has been undertaken on physical inactivity as a risk factor for health, harmful alcohol use and tobacco smoking.
    The role of the OECD, in close partnership with the World Health Organisation, is to provide policy makers in the health sector and beyond with solid evidence of the likely health and economic impacts of alternative strategies to tackle chronic diseases and their risk factors. The OECD and WHO have been making joint efforts to produce analyses and tools that countries at different level of income may use to select the most effective and efficient policies in their fight against chronic diseases.


Franco Sassi,

Project outputs

logo_new_els Policy Brief: OECD Obesity Update 2014

OECD Health Working Papers

 Other papers

Data visualisation


Related Documents


Health Publications

Health Policies

Obesity and the Economics of Prevention - Fit not Fat - en

Third Lancet Series on Chronic Diseases

Economics of Public Health and Health Promotion

European Diabetes Leadership Forum (EDLF), Copenhagen, 25-26 April 2012

Obesity Update