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Experts attack government’s “nudge” policy on obesity

“Nudge” could be a smokescreen for inaction on obesity

Adrian O'Dowd

Friday, 15 April 2011

Experts have attacked the government’s policy of nudging the population to improve public health and said it could achieve little in tackling obesity.

In a head to head debate published online today in the BMJ, experts discuss whether or not “nudge” is an effective public health strategy to tackle obesity.

With obesity rates soaring, the government has been promoting nudge – a strategy that does not tell people how to live but encourages them to make healthy choices over diet and exercise.

Professor Tim Lang, professor of food policy and Dr Geof Rayner, honorary research fellow, both from the Centre for Food Policy at City University in London, said that nudge was not new and that it was “a smokescreen for, at best, inaction and, at worst, publicly endorsed marketing”.

They argued that the nudging strategy showed the government in a soft light and allowed it to shy away from taking tough action that might be unpopular, such as introducing more regulation, higher taxes and legislation that restricted or banned unhealthy habits.

The public health responsibility deals with industry that were formalised in the 2010 public health White Paper added further concern to the use of nudging, they argued.

“Our final worry is that nudge becomes collusion between the state and corporations to hoodwink consumers. At least nannies are overt,” they conclude.

Dr Adam Oliver, senior lecturer from the London School of Economics and Political Science in London, however, argued nudge could be successful and said there was a lot of ignorance about what nudge actually meant.

Dr Oliver said nudge should not be seen as a replacement for stricter forms of food regulation, but rather as “an additional tool to complement regulation by moving society incrementally in a direction that might benefit all of us”.

Although nudging was at an initial development stage and little evaluation had taken place, it was useful he argued, saying there was “beauty in the approach in that almost everyone can think up and pilot financially costless initiatives in their households or workplaces”.

He concluded: “In tackling obesity, the nudge approach will be no substitute for regulation of the food and drinks industry, but it may nonetheless serve the social good.”

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