AIMS: To identify characteristics of the public health policies of four Nordic countries concerning how they present the causes of ill health, the best ways to deal with these causes, and where to place responsibility; additionally, to investigate whether there is a common Nordic policy.
METHODS: Analyses of recent public health programs in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
RESULTS: Focus is on either, or both, individual behavior and living conditions as causes of ill health; the remedies are classical liberal as well as social democratic policies. None of the programs is consistent with either ideological strand; each has its peculiar combination of interpretations and policies. The Danish program is the most liberal focusing on behaviors and individual's choices; the Norwegian program is the most social democratic or social liberal focusing mostly on the social and physical environment and the politicians' responsibility to improve the population's health. The Swedish and the Finnish programs lie between those of Denmark and Norway. The Finnish and Norwegian governments stress their responsibility for the health of the population.
CONCLUSIONS: No common Nordic political approach to public health exists. All programs contain contradictory policies and ideological statements with differences regarding the emphasis on individual behavior versus choice and living conditions and political responsibility. The policies are not entirely predictable from the political stance of the government; national differences seem to play a role.