Government defends health campaign approach

Evidence that the Government’s approach of “nudging” people to make healthy lifestyle choices works is “weak” and the method should be used sparingly as a backup to regulation, according to public health experts.

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The verdict by the British Medical Journal will be a blow to the Government, which wants to encourage behaviour change by making sure people have the option to choose a healthier lifestyle first, and only introducing legislation to force the food and drink industry to take action when it is absolutely necessary.

The BMJ analysis says: “Without regulation to limit the potent effects of unhealthy nudges in existing environments shaped largely by industry, nudging towards healthier behaviour may struggle to make much impression on the scale and distribution of behaviour change needed to improve population health to the level required to reduce the burden of chronic disease in the UK and beyond.”

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley wants to establish voluntary agreements with the food and drink industries to help affect behaviour change. Discussions with companies including Unilever and Diageo aimed at agreeing a “responsibility deal” are ongoing and are expected to lead to commitments from industry on the reformulation of food to reduce salt; better information for consumers about food; and promotion of more socially responsible retailing and consumption of alcohol.

The Department of Health also wants to see more brands involved in, and help pay for its anti-obesity drive Change4Life. Recent initiatives, such as the “Great Swapathon”, have promoted healthier lifestyle choices.

A Department of Health spokesman says of the BMJ’s analysis: “”It is clear that the old ways of tackling public health problems have not always delivered the necessary improvements.

“Our approach to public health follows a model that means that we will employ a range of approaches to improve health – from nudging when appropriate to more serious interventions, such as legislation, when necessary.”

He continues: “We are pleased the BMJ recognises that the ’nudge’ approach has had some positive effects and agree that alone it is not enough to improve the health of the nation. But a better understanding of behavioural science is an important part of our wide-ranging approach.”

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