Alcohol initiative under fire during ‘nudge week’

Ministers think they can gently 'nudge' people towards a healthy lifestyle. Health charities say it's not enough. But whose body – and mind – is it anyway?

It was supposed to be the start of a week-long campaign to improve the UK's health. But yesterday, six charities that fight alcohol abuse refused to co-operate with the first stage of the government plan.

Damning a new voluntary code on alcohol labelling and promotion as 'toothless,' the charities, which include doctors' union the British Medical Association, claimed that evidence from other countries showed only steep price rises would deter heavy drinkers and young people.

It's an urgent problem: this week it has emerged that a three year old child was admitted to hospital for alcoholism. He was one of 13 children and over 100 teenagers treated in just one area of the country during 2010 – these were some of the most extreme cases, ill enough to be hospitalised, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they went without a drink.

For Sarah Matthews of the British Liver Trust, alcohol has become too accessible and 'normal,' even to children: 'The power of cheap alcohol, its availability and promotion, makes it very difficult for people to consider their health when making decisions about if they drink and how much,' she says.

The government won't agree to the tough measures the charities want – bans and radical price hikes – partly because it is committed to a more subtle strategy.

Inside Downing Street, the Prime Minister has a small team harnessing economic and psychological theories to policies that will change our behaviour.

They want to 'nudge' us towards making healthier choices of our own accord, partly by changing the environment in which we make those choices. For example, if snacks like fruit were displayed close to the checkouts in shops and the sweets and biscuits were less obvious, we might be more likely to buy an apple or banana than a chocolate bar.

Mind games
All week, in areas that range from healthy eating to taking more exercise, ministers will be parading the companies that have pledged to help us help ourselves. Yesterday it was the drinks manufacturers promising to stop advertising near schools.

Health campaigners criticise the government for being too soft on businesses that sell unhealthy products. Meanwhile, another set of critics say this is the 'nanny state' in action. Subtly changing our thought processes and decisions is sinister, the libertarians say: a 'nudge tyranny'.

After all, if how I treat my body is my own business, do I want the government messing with my mind?

You Decide

  1. Is it anyone else's business if I choose to harm my body and mind with unhealthy habits or addictions? Why does the government care?
  2. Should we all pay for health service treatment for alcohol and smoking-related diseases?

Activities

  1. Research the effects of alcohol and tobacco on the human body. Map them on a diagram and discuss whether one is worse than the other.
  2. Write a short drama scene in which the rest of the group needs one person to make a particular choice: do they choose to persuade, manipulate or force them to do the 'right' thing?

Some People Say...

“All unhealthy products should be illegal.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Nudging sounds extremely silly.
It's deadly serious, because it's the way the politicians think they are going to get us to live healthier, happier lives, becoming more productive and less expensive to look after.
What if I don't want to be healthy?
Well, they want to change people's mind about what they want by 'altering the context in which people act' as the Downing St 'nudge unit' drily describes it. This could mean regulation to alter your choices or the influences on you, such as advertising and displays in shops.
That's taking liberties!
That's certainly how some on the right of British politics see it – the 'libertarians', who see individual freedoms as the most important political value.

Subjects

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