Changing behaviours

New reports from the British Psychological Society. Ella Rhodes reports.

Two new behaviour change briefings have offered insights from psychology on childhood nutrition and the use of electronic cigarettes. The documents, written by members of the British Psychological Society’s Behaviour Change Advisory Group, aim to raise awareness of areas where psychology can achieve behaviour change and inform interventions.

Professor Jane Ogden wrote the Changing Behaviour: Childhood Nutrition report and recommended an increase in tax on high-fat and high-sugar foods to improve children’s diets. The report also suggests enforcing manufacturers to lower fat, sugar and salt contents, or better label food with high amounts of these.

Ogden (University of Surrey) said the briefing was published at a time when the UK has seen a dramatic rise in childhood obesity: ‘There are many psychological and physical consequences of being obese as a child, including teasing, low self-esteem and asthma. In addition, regardless of weight, many children’s diets are poor and high in fat, sugar and salt. Something therefore needs to be done. Children’s diets reflect both individual factors – beliefs, behaviours, emotions – and social factors such as availability and tax. This briefing is an attempt to show how those in power need to take action to deal with these factors as a means to improve child health.’

The report also suggests that healthy eating should be included in parenting programmes and within the personal, social, health and economic education curriculum in schools. ‘Parents face lots of problems when trying to help their children eat well in terms of the child’s own reactions to foods, the parent’s own history and relationship with food, the impact of both the child’s and the parent’s peers, the wider social world in terms of the media, supermarkets, and food industry and the even broader world of policy and the pricing of healthy and unhealthy food and the regulations around portion sizes and food labelling.’

The second report, Changing Behaviour: Electronic Cigarettes, recommends that e-cigarettes should be actively promoted as a method for stopping smoking. Its authors also recommend improving education about the relative harms of smoking, nicotine, and e-cigarettes and offering e-cigarettes as part of NHS Stop Smoking Services.

Dr Lynne Dawkins, Associate Professor (London South Bank University) and co-author of the report, said that while we don’t know the long-term effects of using these devices, or ‘vaping’, studies that have measured toxicants and carcinogens in the vapour under normal usage conditions support the Royal College of Physicians’ conclusion that the harms of vaping are unlikely to exceed 5 per cent of those associated with smoking tobacco.  

‘Whilst the use of e-cigarettes remains controversial, over the past few years, a number of professional bodies (Public Health England, Royal College of Physicians, Cancer Research UK) have recognised the positive contribution that they can have on smokers attempting to stop. The BPS now also endorse the use of e-cigarettes for smoking cessation, which may help to reassure smokers of their reduced harm status and that they can be useful for some smokers trying to quit. The intervention functions and policy recommendations made in the briefing should also help to ensure that correct evidence-based information about e-cigarettes is disseminated and that e-cigarettes are allowed to evolve and improve in order to increase capabilities, opportunities and motivations to use among smokers.’

Dawkins also used the COM-B behavioural change framework to assess why e-cigarettes are less satisfactory to some who are attempting to quit smoking. ‘There are clear examples of how we can improve capability, opportunity and motivation for smokers to quit using e-cigarettes and important policy recommendations can be drawn from this.’   

The report also recommends using policy interventions and fiscal measures to raise the cost of smoking and reduce the cost of e-cigarettes, continuing to increase taxes, smoke-free regulation and purchasing barriers for cigarettes, but also to regulate the reduced-risk product less heavily. It also suggests avoiding both taxation on e-cigarettes and legislation for ‘vape-free’ environments, as well as promoting the unrestricted advertising of factual information about them. 

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