The e-cigarette craze and sweets for bankers get 'Nudge unit' thumbs-up

E-cigarettes: The Behavioural Insights Team says the devices work because they mimic smoking
E-cigarettes: The Behavioural Insights Team says the devices work because they mimic smoking

The influential Behavioural Insights Team, aka the 'Nudge unit', has thrown its backing behind e-cigarettes, asserting that vaping is the easiest way for smokers to quit because of its similarity to smoking.

It is much easier to substitute a similar behaviour than to eliminate an entrenched one

The claim comes in a progress report by the Behavioural Insights Team, originally a government initiative before its part-privatisation last year.

While the unit's approval will be welcomed by e-cigarette brands, it will annoy companies producing nicotine gum and patches which have seen their sales plummet as vaping has grown in popularity. Health campaigners who argue that the long-term effects of vaping remain unknown will also be perturbed by the endorsement.

Michael Hallsworth, the head of health and tax on the team, said e-cigarettes were now "the most successful product at helping people to quit smoking, and the evidence shows that almost all users of e-cigarettes are former smokers".

Reflecting on the trend, Hallsworth reasoned that an "important tenet" of behaviour change is that it is "much easier to substitute a similar behaviour than to eliminate an entrenched one". The contention directly contradicts the strategy behind an ad run last year by Johnson & Johnson's QuickMist product with the strapline, 'Don't Vape. Quit for good'.

The Behavioural Insights Team did, however, warn of the need to get the regulatory framework for e-cigarettes right, by balancing the potential benefits with legitimate concerns around issues like marketing to children.

Also in the area of smoking cessation, the report describes how Public Health England’s Stoptober campaign was tested with different websites messages, images and choice architecture in a live randomised trial.

The best-performing page included a health benefits message and a testimonial, but lacked a rotating carousel of images. A carousel of images was consistently found to reduce sign-ups by 0.5 percentage points.

As a result, these were removed from all activity while the campaign was still live, resulting in an extra 3,000 registrations to Stoptober.

A sweet banker

Another ‘nudge’ example cited by the report related to charitable giving. To get investment bankers to donate a day’s salary to charity, the unit tested a number of different interventions.

These included a personalised email from the charity’s CEO (compared to an impersonal one), a visit from a celebrity, being greeted by a volunteer, or being given a small packet of sweets.

Michael Sanders, head of research, education & charitable giving on the team, revealed that sweets emerged as part of the most effective measure.

"We found that the personalised email and the packet of sweets, which aimed to induce reciprocity, were the most powerful interventions – together boosting the proportion of participants donating from 5 per cent to 17 per cent," he said.

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