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Incentives, health promotion and equality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 September 2010

Kristin Voigt*
Department of Politics, Philosophy & Religion, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK
*Correspondence to: Kristin Voigt, Department of Politics, Philosophy & Religion, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK. Email:


The use of incentives to encourage individuals to adopt ‘healthier’ behaviours is an increasingly popular instrument in health policy. Much of the literature has been critical of ‘negative’ incentives, often due to concerns about equality; ‘positive’ incentives, however, have largely been welcomed as an instrument for the improvement of population health and possibly the reduction of health inequalities. The aim of this paper is to provide a more systematic assessment of the use of incentives from the perspective of equality. The paper begins with an overview of existing and proposed incentive schemes. I then suggest that the distinction between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ incentives – or ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ – is of limited use in distinguishing those incentive schemes that raise concerns of equality from those that do not. The paper assesses incentive schemes with respect to two important considerations of equality: equality of access and equality of outcomes. While our assessment of incentive schemes will, ultimately, depend on various empirical facts, the paper aims to advance the debate by identifying some of the empirical questions we need to ask. The paper concludes by considering a number of trade-offs and caveats relevant to the assessment of incentive schemes.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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