DR MAX PEMBERTON: Sorry, but vouchers that bribe people to lose weight won’t work

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  • The obesity epidemic costs every person in the UK an extra £409 in taxes annually
  • A new plan is being tested in Wolverhampton to make healthier choices
  • Dr Max says people should recognize the long-term health benefits of sustainable change

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As a nation, we are not really as healthy as we could be. The UK is the second fattest country in Europe after Malta. And one study estimates that the UK obesity epidemic costs everyone an extra £409 in taxes annually. This is unacceptable – just have to do something.

But what? Despite millions of pounds being spent on public health campaigns, we still seem to be stuck on the couch, putting fast food in our mouths with no apparent care in the world.

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We clearly need a different approach. Enter a new scheme being tested in Wolverhampton under which residents are given incentives like free cinema tickets, shopping vouchers and theme park admission to make healthier living choices.

Coupons – some called ‘sloucher vouchers’ – will be given to lazy locals who increase their exercise level and improve their diet.

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A new plan is being tested in Wolverhampton offering residents incentives like free cinema tickets, shopping vouchers and theme park admission to make healthier living choices (file image)

They will be given a fitness tracker linked to an app that will monitor things like step count and the amount of fruits and vegetables they eat.

The £3 million test is part of a £100 million package of government measures to tackle obesity, which, along with related diseases, is estimated to cost the NHS a whopping £6 billion per year.

It is going to run for six months and then it can be rolled out across the country.

I’m going to admit to feeling conflicted instead. On the one hand I understand that the ‘nudge’ approach of gradually encouraging people to make lifestyle changes by giving incentives often, in the long run, saves money.

The improvements made could mean saving money on expensive treatments associated with an unhealthy way of life – prevention is better (and cheaper) than cure.

The idea of ​​encouraging people in this way is not really new. I remember once, working in a drug rehabilitation clinic, involved in a study looking at infections in drug users.

It was an uphill struggle as no one volunteered.

After several months of trying and failing to enroll patients for support, the study suddenly became a success. It was a simple matter: money.

Given the importance of the research, it was eventually decided that a financial incentive of a few pounds should be given to encourage people to participate. Once it was introduced, the trial began, ranging from just a handful of volunteers to nearly every patient I saw.

Dr. Max Pemberton (pictured) says lasting change requires people to recognize the long-term benefits to their own health, not do so for a night in the cinema courtesy of taxpayer

Dr. Max Pemberton (pictured) says lasting change requires people to recognize the long-term benefits to their own health, not do so for a night in the cinema courtesy of taxpayer

At first I felt uncomfortable about it because it seemed like a bribe. But what I appreciated was that it was a matter of weighing the ethics of financial pressure, with the greater benefit of doing research.

Ethically it was complicated, but in practice the strategy worked, and for an initial investment of a few pounds per recruit, it provided a better understanding of how to direct resources and thus reduce waste.

But offering benefits such as cash to participate in a study is different from bribing people to lead healthier lives.

For one, there is evidence that suggests that, while people are initially curious, they soon become bored in the long run. In particular, those most at risk because of obesity or a poor lifestyle are most likely to resort to their old ways.

Older drivers could avoid prosecution for reckless driving under a plan being considered across the UK. Those over the age of 70 who were tested would avoid fines and penalty points for offenses such as driving too slow or jumping light. This is a great idea. Older drivers are incredibly safe. From working at A&E, the people I worry about are young people.

Bribes seem less exciting, lose their novelty and appeal, and the effort it takes to obtain them soon tip the scales the other way round.

People really have to change for lasting change. Instead of doing it for a night at the cinema, courtesy of the taxpayer, they themselves should recognize the long-term benefits to their health.

And I have another issue with plans like this.

As a taxpayer, I resent my money being spent on things like shopping vouchers for other people to do things — like going to the gym or eating healthy — that I do anyway. This seems inherently unfair.

Yes, I understand that in a social medicine model like the NHS we all have to bear the burden of other people’s choices and so it is in all our advantage to see them do what we can to make things better.

But even then, while it’s probably the right thing to at least try, this plan sticks to a crawl, doesn’t it?

Treatment an owl beats job, shirley

Dr Max said cosmetic procedures rarely improve body confidence in the long term and certainly do not fix underlying problems in either relationship.  Image: Shirley Ballas who had breast augmentation and liposuction to improve her self-esteem

Pictured: Shirley on the cover of Prima magazine

Dr Max said cosmetic procedures rarely improve body confidence in the long term and certainly do not fix underlying problems in either relationship. Image: Shirley Ballas who had breast augmentation and liposuction to improve her self-esteem

Strictly Come Dancing chief justice Shirley Ballas has spoken openly about how long she felt she was ‘doing it for the wrong reasons’ to save her marriage. Along with breast augmentation, she had liposuction in her arms and legs to improve her self-esteem. I feel for Shirley – I’ve seen too many women who have gone through similar invasive procedures under the mistaken belief that it will help their relationship. The truth is that these procedures rarely improve body confidence in the long run and…

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