Our cycling and sugar tax activists need to brush up on nudge theory

by The Listener / 08 February, 2018
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We know we should consume less sugar. We know cycling has many benefits. But we shouldn't feel coerced into doing it.

As a result of climate change, water pollution, rising obesity and other modern catastrophes, our world is full of shoulds and shouldn’ts. Most are sensible solutions, if only we would follow them: cycle more, walk, drive less, eat nutritious food, use less plastic. Public opinion is even moving towards being willing to be corralled into these good behaviours without crying “nanny state!” The popularity of supermarkets’ proposed phase-out of single-use plastic bags this year is an excellent case in point.

However, an economic study’s finding that sugar taxes – one of the most commonly advanced policy fixes for obesity – don’t achieve their purpose illustrates why we need smarter and less-doctrinaire approaches to our shoulds and shouldn’ts.

The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research analysed the data from 47 peer-reviewed studies and papers examining the effects of sugar taxes around the world. It found that, although there was sometimes evidence of a reduction in sugar intake as a result of the higher price, the evidence for overall health benefits was weak. People simply consumed more calories from other sources. Their overall energy intake, the quality of their diets and the health-risk factors were largely unchanged.

Sugar-tax advocates rightly counter that price increases work more effectively for low-income households, where the damage done by cheap, sugary foods is most severe. Punitive taxes also have symbolic and educative value. And there’s a good case for using the revenue for further anti-obesity measures.

But the key factor here is surely that where an undesirable activity involves a number of factors – such as diet and lifestyle choices – attacking it with one holy grail authoritarian impost won’t work, and may backfire by causing resentment, especially if the bad habit is something people really enjoy. There’s no argument about the scientific evidence that more than a very small amount of regular sugar is bad for us. Yet there still remains the nagging feeling that the poorest among us, who have few enough choices as it is, would have yet another one priced beyond their reach. “It’s for your own good” is a hard message to sell, especially in the absence of evidence.

Society also agrees on the green-power and health value of cycling, yet this increasingly popular activity is now copping something of a backlash. When former Prime Minister John Key first added national public cycleways to the main political agenda, it was greeted largely as a feel-good, no-downside sort of policy. Now that urban cycleways are becoming mainstream priorities for local authorities, the response is decidedly mixed. Making room for safer cycling means compromises in existing local amenity, and suddenly something that seemed a no-brainer and a joy is an inconvenience or worse. Some people feel browbeaten, others that their rights as drivers and pedestrians have been declared second-class. There is also a tendency on the part of cycling advocates to make heroic assumptions about how much cycling is feasible and to overlook some downsides to its growth.

Not everyone is physically able or sufficiently confident to cycle. Household shoppers, the elderly, the disabled, parents wrangling young children, and the simply unco-ordinated who would be a menace on two wheels are a not-insignificant portion of the population. Much existing urban infrastructure makes bikes a tricky fit with other traffic, and even where there’s room, it remains reasonably high-risk. It’s hard to see how, in a pedal-powered future, more people would not be killed or disabled in cycling accidents – not just the riders but the pedestrians they barrel into. The – highly desirable – upsurge we seek in children biking to school would hardly be risk-free, either, as children and teens are naturally less careful.

None of that counters the overwhelming positives. Despite having once experienced the death of a Listener colleague in a cycling accident and, more recently, watched another writer deal with a disabling head injury, our staff includes several who confidently cycle to work most days. Cities such as Copenhagen have normalised cycling as commuter transport, and so can our cities.

It’s beyond argument that mass cycling could be close to a magic bullet in reducing pollution, obesity and congestion. But it’s time for our should and shouldn’t activists to brush up on “nudge” behavioural psychology: make change a positive, non-coerced experience. And respect the fact that not all will leap on to this cycle.

This article was first published in the February 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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