Could redesigning supermarkets, bars and restaurants ’nudge’ us away from harmful consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco?

Behavioural and cognitive scientists at the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol have been awarded a prestigious Wellcome Collaborative Award in Science.

This will investigate ways to ’nudge’ people towards healthier behaviour - to reduce their food and alcohol consumption and to stop smoking - in order to improve health across the population.

Research shows that if people ate less, drank less alcohol and didn’t smoke, death and disability from diseases like diabetes and many cancers would be far less common.

This ambitious four year research programme will systematically test ways of redesigning real-world supermarkets, bars and restaurants which could reduce consumption.

Specialist laboratory studies to understand promising mechanisms will also be carried out alongside these real-world studies to ensure the changes have the best chance of success.

Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, said: "Our vision is to accelerate progress in changing behaviour by redesigning environments to improve health for all.

"This will be the most ambitious co-ordinated set of studies undertaken to date to robustly test promising interventions to reduce food, alcohol and tobacco consumption.

"We’ll be working with over 140 student bars, 1,700 grocery shops and 100 workplace cafeterias alongside experiments in specialist labs in Cambridge and Bristol to find out what works."

The researchers, led by Professor Marteau will look at the effects of three different sets of interventions that show promise: changing the size and shape of food, alcohol and tobacco products (such as cigarette packets) and the tableware used to consume them (for example, beer glasses), changing the availability and placement of food, alcohol and tobacco products, and the labelling of food and alcoholic as well as non-alcoholic drinks.

Targeting conscious, intentional routes to prompt healthier behaviours by providing information to people - the traditional method used - is rarely very effective, particularly amongst the poorest groups in our society.

By contrast, altering cues in the environment to change behaviour has the potential to deliver larger population-level effects that do not add to, or perpetuate, existing inequalities.

Dr Gareth Hollands, Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, added: "This is an outstanding opportunity to test the effects of interventions, individually and in combination, and ultimately generate an important evidence base showing how healthier behaviours could be prompted effectively and on a very large scale."

The substantial new evidence base that will be generated will be used to make the case for national and international action to redesign environments to cue healthier choices, through voluntary action by retailers and through regulation and legislation.

Professor Marteau explained that international workshops, public engagement activities and a Behaviour Change Summit will help ensure the implementation of the new evidence.

Mary De Silva, Head of Population Health at Wellcome , said: "By developing our understanding of how ‘nudge’ interventions such as product placement in shops, design and packaging can influence decisions, this project has the potential to lead to reductions in consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and unhealthy foods.

"Research in this area is a critical part of helping prevent non-communicable diseases such as heart attacks, obesity, stroke, cancer and diabetes. Wellcome is committed to supporting research to improve health and reduce disease and is proud to be supporting this exciting project."

Professor Paul Fletcher, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and member of the leadership team, added: "This Award will help us to identify key links between subtle cognitive mechanisms that we can measure in the lab or brain scanner and the real world behaviours that can result in harmful patterns of over-consumption.

"Parallel sets of experiments, moving from the lab to the real world and back, are going to be crucial in finding ways to help people gain control of their decisions and fight back against an environment that is often pressurising us to consume, even when we are unaware of it."

Professor Marcus Munafò from the University of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology and MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit , will lead the lab studies in Bristol. He said: "This is a unique opportunity to bring together laboratory studies and field trials, and to move between these in a flexible and agile way so that we can better understand whether these ‘choice architecture’ interventions are able to promote healthier behaviour.

"It builds on the strong research traditions of both groups in this area, and our strong networks of international collaborations. Critically, we will work closely with key stakeholders, including policy makers, to ensure that our research has an impact on population health as rapidly and efficiently as possible."