VicHealth wants us off the sugar and on the water. Photo: Ryann Cooley
Victorians have been subjected to a campaign of clandestine behaviour hacks to encourage us to consume healthier alternatives to the alcohol and sugar we seem to crave.
The campaign has included techniques such as hiding sugary drinks from view at the hospital, installing free drinking fountains at the footy and pushing pubs to promote water.
The program is detailed in a report to be released Thursday from behavioural psychologist David Halpern, head of the the Britain-based Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), following a period in residence with VicHealth.
The projects are experiments in methods to encourage healthier behaviour through suggestion, rather than prohibition.
“The fundamental objective is to make sure that at least in most of these cases there is an easy and attractive alternative,” he said. “If you want to change something, don’t say ‘Stop’, but offer a better alternative. The challenge is, coming out of a stadium for example, what can the healthier alternative be?”
Behaviour hack 1: water at the footy
Embattled Etihad Stadium, which last year responded to complaints that food and drinks were too expensive, began allowing punters to bring their own to the footy, contacted VicHealth to run a trial encouraging healthier habits.
The trial involved installing and promoting free water fountains at the grounds, and the results are still being analysed. Dr Halpern said it was contentious because of the risk people would choose to drink water for free rather than pay at the concession stands.
There is a problem throughout sport – whether at the local Auskick or the MCG – that the options on offer for food and drink tended to be unhealthy at any age.
“Sometimes it is an ingrained culture and sometimes it isn’t, it’s just what we fall into the habit of doing,” he said. “If you offer a healthier alternative, [sometimes] people are just as happy to engage in that.”
Behaviour hack 2: hiding sugary drinks at the hospital
At the Alfred Hospital, a trial began by simply moving sugary drinks out of a prominent position and replacing them with healthier alternatives.
“They are in the business of making people healthier and I think they thought it was a bit ironic that they were serving unhealthy foods,” Dr Halpern said.
Despite the concern of the proprietor in this case, drink sales overall didn’t tank. Rather, the sale of high-sugar drinks fell 12 per cent while the sale of the healthier alternatives increased by the same amount.
Next, the price of the sugary drinks was lifted by 20 per cent. Again, the sale of those dropped – from about half of all drinks sold to 44 per cent – without any drop in overall sales.
“This means that we were able to reduce the kilojoule content of people’s purchases without adversely impacting revenue for the suppliers,” the report says. “This is incredibly important for potential scaling of this intervention as suppliers would be reluctant to implement anything that might reduce their profits.”
Behaviour hack 3: drinking (water) at the pub
VicHealth convinced four pubs to join them in promoting water at their venue. Unsurprisingly, this was “complicated”, according to the report.
“Making sure that water is available is fundamental, but getting businesses on side to implement and actively promote drinking it is hard,” the report says. “You can legislate for water to be available, but you can’t make punters drink it.”
They tried three different approaches: putting water on the menu, creating an “oasis” cooler on site with water offered with every order between 8pm and 1am, and a “control” group that just had water available without promotion.
The results were inconclusive, but researchers found that, for every 100 people in a bar, only three glasses of water were seen. For every 100 drinks ordered, only two were water.
The experiment was repeated in February with better resources for capturing data, with results expected to be published later this year.
Dr Halpern praised Australia’s leadership in adopting behavioural insights to target particular health outcomes, for example, with plain packaging for cigarettes.
He said the experiments were novel for Victoria, but that their impact could be felt for a long time to come.
“Victorians didn’t choose it, but we are evolving into a world where it’s easier to make the unhealthy choice,” he said. Adopting suggestive techniques to make healthier alternatives more viable and available could have massive benefits.
“We should be thinking, well, this does affect our behaviour, it’s consequential, so why don’t we just tilt it a bit in our own favour?”