Health inequalities researchers have long advocated for governments to adopt policy instruments that address structural determinants of health rather than targeting individual behaviours. The assumption behind this position is that such instruments might challenge a core neoliberal principle of individualism embedded in the prevailing health policy paradigm. We critique this assumption by highlighting the discursive construction of policy instruments, and their discursive effects. Using the UK’s Tackling Obesity policy as a case study, we demonstrate how instruments designed to target structural determinants of health (such as food advertisement regulation) can actively sustain – rather than challenge, the dominant policy paradigm. We call this phenomenon ‘upstream individualism’, exploring how it relates to tensions in the research-policy relationship, and its relevance beyond health policy. We argue that instruments can shape policy change and continuity, including at a paradigm level, and that ‘upstream individualism’ provides a useful basis for theorising these power dynamics. This article contributes to the constructivist public policy literature by noting how policy instruments meant to challenge the discursive construction of individualism within public health can ultimately reinforce it.
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