Smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol and unhealthy snacks are leading causes of years of life lost globally. Promising interventions include nudging – changes to the physical environment that make healthier behaviours more likely – and taxation. Public acceptability of policies is increasingly recognised as playing a pivotal role in determining the extent to which evidence is implemented into policy.
Researchers from the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at Cambridge conducted a nationally representative survey of over 8000 adults living in England. They first assessed the current level of support for four different nudges and taxes to change tobacco, alcohol, and snacking consumption. Overall 60% supported these policies with support varying by policy and behaviour.
Putting graphic warning labels on products received strongest support (supported by 78%), followed by reducing product size (59%), then taxing the product (57%), and finally reducing the availability of the product (47%). All these policies received greater support when applied to tobacco than when applied to alcohol or snacks.
The researchers also investigated whether support for policies can be increased by either communicating evidence of policy effectiveness using an unquantified statement: “Research shows that the introduction of this policy will reduce the number of people who [smoke]” or via a statement that quantified the effectiveness: “Research shows that the introduction of this policy will reduce the number of people who [smoke] by 10%”.
They found that asserting evidence of effectiveness increased acceptability by a small margin. 60% of the control group, who had no information about effectiveness, expressed support for the policies, compared with 63% of the group who had the message asserting evidence of effectiveness. Adding a quantification to this assertion did not make much difference: 65% of those who saw the quantified message expressed support for the policies.
Communicating that these policies are effective can increase public support for them by a small but significant amount, suggesting that highlighting effectiveness could contribute to mobilising public demand for policies. While uncertainty remains about the strength of public support needed to convince policy makers, this may help overcome political inertia and enable action on behaviours that damage population and planetary health.
Our findings show good support amongst English adults for nudges and taxes to reduce smoking as well as alcohol and snack consumption. A simple statement asserting that they are effective can increase this support further in a study setting. It remains to be seen whether such messages are as effective in real world settings where many more compelling competing messages are evident.”
– Dr James Reynolds, lead researcher for the study, Behaviour and Health Research Unit
This research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research, with further funding from Wellcome.
Find out more
Read the study: J Reynolds, S Archer, M Pilling, G Hollands,T Marteau. Public acceptability of nudging and taxing to reduce consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and food: A population-based survey experiment. 19 July 2019. Social Science and Medicine
Queries: Lucy Lloyd, Communications Manager, Primary Care Unit