12 Nov, 2014 Last updated: 19 Mar, 2015

Two decades ago, esteemed scientist and VicHealth Chair, Professor Emeritus Sir Gustav Nossal AC CBE, called for a new approach and broader vision for health promotion.

Taking aim at the tobacco industry, he led VicHealth’s early agenda to dislodge tobacco sponsorship from sport and the arts.

'Tobacco companies knew that both sports and the arts could provide convincing advocates and powerful role models – "cultural ambassadors" capable of carrying ideas across the community,' said Professor Nossal in the inaugural edition of the VicHealth Letter, then called the VicHealth Action Report. His frank and impassioned message was that successful cross-sector collaboration was building momentum, reducing the reliance sports and the arts had on tobacco industry sponsorship and delivering healthy messages to the community.

VicHealth went on to forge strong alliances between sport, the arts and health. Today, the image of a cigarette smoking athlete or cigarette advertising at an arts event is starkly anachronistic. Such is the power of strategic health promotion, the founding purpose of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation.

From Quit and SunSmart to Active for Life, the VicHealth Letter has chronicled the changing face of health promotion across 40 editions, regularly delivered to private and public sector readers. The VicHealth Letter is playing a key role in sharing the pioneering work of the foundation and its collaborators as well as acting as a trustworthy source of health promotion information.

The diversity and breadth of articles in this anniversary edition is compelling evidence of the growth in impact of health promotion activity in Victoria and beyond.

VicHealth’s Action Agenda for Health Promotion provides the organisation with a bold vision and strategic plan for the next 10 years. The new strategic approach will see VicHealth innovate by finding new ways to address health priorities; inform by instigating action and broadening the organisation’s impact; and integrate by embedding interventions into the Victorian Prevention System.

The Action Agenda also provides a means by which to measure progress against VicHealth’s strategic imperatives to promote good health and prevent illness – promote healthy eating, encourage regular physical activity, prevent tobacco use, prevent harm from alcohol, and improve mental wellbeing.

Contemporary challenges in health call for smarter thinking

In 2010, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron set up a 'nudge unit' to work on how to use behavioural economics and market signals to influence the choices citizens make and guide them towards healthier and more socially integrated decisions1. This unit, otherwise known as the Behavioural Insights Team, applies insights from a range of disciplines to health and uncover a new approach to influencing people's behaviour2

What began as the world’s first government institution of its kind is now a world-leading social purpose company with three owners: the Behavioural Insights Team, the UK government and Nesta (the UK’s leading innovation charity). Its chief executive, Dr David Halpern has led the UK-based team since its inception.

David HalpernDr Halpern has since become VicHealth's first 'Leading Thinker', which means he and his team will be building evidence-based research to assist with driving the VicHealth Action Agenda, with a central focus on obesity prevention.

He says he's thrilled to become the inaugural Leading Thinker for VicHealth. 'Having led the Behavioural Insights Team since it was set up, I am looking forward to introducing this work to the Victorian public. Ground work for the team started while I was the Founding Director of UK’s Institute for Government and continued while I held the role as Chief Analyst under the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair.'

'Working with VicHealth presents an opportunity for the Behavioural Insights Team under my stewardship to work collaboratively with a consortium of Victorian partners, with input from key members based in our Australian office. Effectively we will be building evidence- based research to assist in driving the Action Agenda for VicHealth, with a central focus on obesity.

'Behavioural Insights bring together ideas from a range of inter-related academic disciplines – behavioural economics, psychology and social anthropology. The idea is simple: to understand how people make everyday decisions and what shapes behaviour. We can use these insights to design policies or interventions that can encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves and society – and often at lower cost and with less use of traditional mandating and instruction.'

'In Britain, people initially regarded our work as a novelty until they started to see some of the strong evidence which showed the effectiveness of behavioural insights. For example, in one our most well-known initiatives, we informed people who failed to pay their tax that most other people had already paid. This simple action, which took the form of an additional sentence in a letter, increased payment rates by over five percentage points. This, along with other similar interventions, has brought forward hundreds of millions of pounds.'

'Similarly, we showed that seemingly small changes have been able to reduce medical errors, reduce missed appointments and get people back to work faster. When people see results such as these, particularly those who are bound by constraints in their work, they move from being sceptical to embracing the approach.'

'Primarily, the goal of my residency will be to develop simple but effective and far-reaching programs to help all Victorians make healthy food choices and encourage regular physical activity. But I also hope that it will lead to many other insights too, both within public health and beyond. Ultimately, behaviour change is not just about what governments do, but about business, third sector and the public too.'

In recent years Australia has experienced a rapid rise in the prevalence of chronic diseases, especially those related to obesity. A VicHealth report on obesity in Australia by world-leading obesity expert Associate Professor Anna Peeters surmises that obesity levels will reach a crisis point in a decade unless a whole of community and government approach is adopted.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter says obesity is without a doubt one the most significant and complicated public health emergencies we now face as a society. "Tackling obesity is going to take more than asking individuals to change their diet and exercise more," she said.

"We need the entire system to support healthy choices, from urban planning that makes physical activity an easy choice, to preserving farming land to secure nutritious food, or changing labelling and marketing of food to protect children, so consumers can see through the spin."

VicHealth is aiming to focus Dr Halpern’s residency towards obesity prevention to help people make better choices about their health and engage in more physical activity.

This work with Dr Halpern represents one of the new approaches VicHealth is taking to address the contemporary challenges in health – looking for different ways to think and shape the future.

From new funding models and exploratory research to influencing healthier choices, VicHealth is at the forefront of health promotion worldwide with knowledge creation playing a central role.

"Dr Halpern's arrival at VicHealth as our first ‘Leading Thinker’ is an example of the organisation’s commitment to innovation and evidence-based research to improve the health of all Victorians.

"We need brave new thinking, as well as insights to continue our pioneering work and I welcome the Behavioural Insights Team to VicHealth and the many exciting possibilities they bring to Victoria’s prevention system," says Ms Rechter.

Read an in-depth overview of the Leading Thinkers Initiative.

To read more about the Behavioural Insights Team go to www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk.

1 Thaler, R 2010, ‘David Cameron’s ‘nudge unit’ aims to improve economic behaviour’, The Guardian, viewed 10 September 2014.
2 Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team 2010, Applying behavioural insight to health, discussion paper, viewed July 2014.