Will Britain's 'behavioral insight unit' nudge people into making healthy choices ... or eating junk food?

Britain's new Conservative government is effectively handing over control of the country's health policies to multinational food and drink manufacturers and fast-food retailers, says a report in the British press.

According to the Guardian, the coalition government led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has set up five "networks" to design reforms to the country's health and nutrition policies. Each of the five working groups is dominated by corporate interests who are expected to put their own profits ahead of sound policy.

Among the companies listed as participating are PepsiCo, Kellogg's and McDonald's. Also listed are Unilever, which manufactures brands such as Hellmann's, Knorr and Lipton, and Diageo, a liquor concern that owns Johnnie Walker, Jose Cuervo, Baileys and Guinness.

The Guardian reports that health activists are calling the move akin to "handing smoking policy over to the tobacco industry."

The food network to tackle diet and health problems includes processed food manufacturers, fast food companies, and Compass, the catering company famously pilloried by Jamie Oliver for its school menus of turkey twizzlers. The food deal's sub-group on calories is chaired by PepsiCo....

The leading supermarkets are an equally strong presence, while the responsibility deal's physical activity group is chaired by the Fitness Industry Association, which is the lobby group for private gyms and personal trainers.

And the working groups' early meetings suggest that the policy discussion is already focusing on making commerce easier for food and alcohol purveyors, rather than establishing health-oriented policies.

In early meetings, these commercial partners have been invited to draft priorities and identify barriers, such as EU legislation, that they would like removed. They have been assured by [Health Secretary Andrew] Lansley that he wants to explore voluntary not regulatory approaches, and to support them in removing obstacles. Using the pricing of food or alcohol to change consumption has been ruled out.

The Guardian notes in a separate article that the Conservatives began working with their corporate partners on plans for an overhaul of health policy long before they won this summer's national election.


The paper also reports that the new health policy will likely involve the British government's new "behavioral insight unit," a group that is working on policies that change people's behavior without legislative change.

Dubbed the "nudge unit," the office is based on an economic theory known as "libertarian paternalism" which preaches that people's behavior can be altered by subtly changing their environment. For instance, cafeterias may place healthy foods in prominent locations while making unhealthy foods harder to reach, a method that has been shown in studies to increase consumption of health foods.

Libertarian paternalism also has fans within the Obama administration. Cass Sunstein, who runs the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, co-wrote a book with University of Chicago professor Richard Thaler in 2008 entitled "Nudge," which advocated the use of the economic theory.

The Economist describes libertarian paternalism as the theory that wants to "help you make the choices you would make for yourself — if only you had the strength of will and the sharpness of mind."