Nudge not enough to change lifestyles - peers

smoking The government is pilot the nudge theory in a number of areas including smoking cessation

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Plans to get people to adopt healthier lifestyles will not work unless the government is more prepared to use legislation, peers believe.

The House of Lords science and technology committee said ministers seemed to be mistaken in their use of what is known as the nudge theory.

Nudging people is about getting them to change their behaviour without necessarily banning activities.

But the group said that did not mean legislation should not be used at all.

Both the prime minister and Health Secretary Andrew Lansley are known to be admirers of the nudge theory.

It formed a key part of the government's public health strategy which was set out at the end of last year.

A unit has also been established in the Cabinet Office to push ahead with policies. Pilots to get people to quit smoking and increase organ donor registration have already been arranged.

'Important lever'

But the cross-party group of peers suggested there was confusion within government over what nudging actually involved, as they had been given different definitions by officials.

The peers also said the government's pursuit of non-regulatory steps had created an environment whereby nudge was being seen as something that did not require legislation.

What is nudge?

  • It is an idea based on a book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein which advocates influencing behaviour by altering the context or environment in which people choose.
  • It differs from traditional approaches to changing lifestyles which tend to be more overt.
  • Conventional measures might include steps such as bans, using tax to increase price or promotional campaigns.
  • But nudge tends to be more subtle, perhaps involving providing information about social norms.
  • It can also include changing the environment, such as installing fewer lifts in a building to encourage people to use the stairs more.
  • Another approach is altering the 'default setting' so that people get salad with their meal rather than say chips unless they specifically ask for them.

But they said this was not always the case, recommending the government took steps to ensure traffic light labelling appears on food.

This contrasts with the government's tactics to date which have been more focused on using voluntary agreements.

For example, earlier this year ministers launched the "responsibility deal" which saw more than 170 companies put their names to a series of pledges covering physical activity, alcohol, health at work and food.

The committee is also calling for an independent chief social scientist to be appointed to provide government with "robust" advice.

Committee chairman Baroness Neuberger said: "There are all manner of things that the government want us to do - lose weight, give up smoking, use the car less, give blood - but how can they get us to do them?

"It won't be easy and this inquiry has shown that it certainly won't be achieved through using nudges, or any other sort of intervention, in isolation."

Professor Lindsey Davies, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, said it was a "welcome and timely report".

"The public health profession has long argued that 'nudging' is but one aspect of a wide programme of interventions to help people make changes in their lives which promote good health and wellbeing."

A Cabinet Office spokesman said the recommendations would be considered.

But he added: "We are glad that they recognise that that the application of behavioural insights continues to be an important policy lever for government. These often complement other, more traditional policy tools."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    So many comments here about "I won't let the government dicate..." blah blah. They already dicate. The gov't specifies what tax you pay, on what & when you pay it. The gov't tells you what's legal/what isn't. The gov't decides whether to fund/not fund NHS, schools, police etc. Why shouldn't the gov't have a say in healthy living when poor health places such a heavy burden on national resources.

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    Yes. It should be used to FORCE the 'food' industry to stop selling fat filled, sugary, sweetened, salty rubbish under the 'healthy' label
    Force companies to make at least 50% of the packaging the list of ingredients - then you can see those 'turkey slices' for what they are - 30% turkey, milk, fat, chemicals, padding, rubbish form the floor.
    Then people will buy a turkey and cook it themselves

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    Trouble with me is that whenever I'm nudged, I nudge back harder. Its why I wont let the state, or anyone else, dictate any aspect of my private life including, the food I eat, the car I drive, my weight, how much I drink, my exercise regime, whether or not to recycle, my use or rejection of politically correct behaviour etc etc. In short - this is almost a democracy so; Nudge Off !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    Life expectancy of a smoker is meant to be about 10 years less than a non smoker, most likely curtailing their retirement. At about £400 a month just in state pensions it seems a smoker will save the state about £50k, even ignoring the likely savings in health care in old age.
    As such on purely monetary I cannot see any reason to stop them smoking. Beyond money it is their own choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    As a student with two children I'm on a very low income. It's not that people need to be nudged into a healthy lifestyle. They know what's healthy. The government need to make a healthy lifestyle cheaper. Processed junk food is wrong but cheaper than fresh food and people will buy what they can afford. It doesn't take a genius to see that but clearly some people in power are clueless!


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