Challenging the health thought police

If there is one really significant thing about the health thought police it is that they are predictable. Whatever the issue – obesity, alcohol abuse, road safety etc etc – the same old answers of taxes, regulation and anything other than personal responsibility are inevitably trotted out.

They also get agitated when indicators of social problems seem to be getting better. The horror with which the anti-alcohol lobby has greeted declining per capita alcohol consumption is one example. Indeed, the response mirrors that once reported by Phillip Adams when he remarked that a meeting of environmentalists almost groaned at the suggestion that some apocalyptic problem was actually on the mend. The basic problem is that much of the health thought police comprise an industry as well organised as the lobbies which are established to resist them. They have agendas, argue their case, lobby and get much better and more positive media coverage than do the people they are targeting.

Yet while the predictable answers are trotted out, research in behavioural economics and psychology are suggesting that there are many better ways to change behaviour.  Blog items over the last year or so canvass some of these developments from Kahneman et al to other research findings. Now one of the most important population health bodies, VicHealth, is trying to focus on exactly these alternatives.

On November 13 VicHealth is conducting a free social marketing seminar which will focus on approaches which influence behaviours that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good. For details see—FREE.aspx and to attend see

The keynote speaker is one of the major contributors to David Cameron’s ‘nudge’ unit, Professor Alan Tapp (Bristol Social Marketing Centre), who will share insights from working with young drivers from disadvantaged backgrounds. VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter will outline what happened when VicHealth used digital technology to increase participation in physical activity. Griffith University lecturer and VicHealth Social Marketing Research Practice Fellow, Dr Krzysztof Kubacki, will offer a rundown of international efforts to reduce the alcohol-related harm around the world in recent years, and outline what worked, what didn’t and why. In this context it would be interesting to see what he says about the DrinkWise Kids Absorb Your Drinking campaign – with which the blog was involved – which research showed was highly effective and memorable but which was excoriated by the anti-alcohol lobby police because it was alcohol industry funded and therefore could not, by definition, be effective. In fact the anti-alcohol lobby reaction to the campaign was a bit like that reported by Phillip Adams on the environmental meeting.

There are lots of practical examples of what works from around the world – particularly those using apps – of how incentives and social marketing can improve health outcomes. The Economist (26/10/2013) reports on some of the US ones which seek to make children eat vegetables do their mathematics homework and jobs around the house. One specific app, Easy Eater, which has been promoted by Michelle Obama, “lets kids record what they eat on an iPad and earn points for bolting broccoli.” The Economist also singles out the Australian Metro Trains app – Dumb Ways to Die – on safety around trains and trams. See In the US of course the problem is that junk food is very cheap and real food is difficult to find in food desert areas in cities. In Australia junk food tends to be dearer than real food, although knowledge of real food preparation is often more the problem than availability, suggesting price signals are only part of the problem let along the solution.

By the way, Jerrill Rechter is a former dancer, arts administrator and ran the Williamson Community Leadership program (the latter two where the blog first came across her). This is perhaps indicative of something else – the creativity and preparedness to challenge the conventional wisdom encouraged by the arts – can have far-reaching implications for other areas. Indeed, perhaps eminent members of the health thought police might usefully spend some time doing some creative dance instead of issuing their next predictable media release.