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Victoria, Australia, steps up to the Obesity challenge

12th Sep 2014

(Update from David Halpern)

A quick report from Victoria Australia, where we are working with VicHealth, before heading back to London tomorrow. The Australians have often led the world on public health measures, so it’s pretty cool to be working with them for the next 2 years, with a special focus on obesity – seen by some as the Mount Everest of contemporary behavioural challenges, and one that virtually all industrialised nations are wrestling with.

First, an interesting result. Many people have sent me links to the ‘fun theory’ piano steps over the years ( It is indeed a fun intervention – steps leading into the underground converted into giant keyboard that plays notes as people stand on it, with an increase of 66% of people using the stairs in a day. But here’s the rub – it only lasts a day, and it’s quite a small staircase. In contrast, this summer VicHealth funded the painting of the Southern Cross Station main staircase (see below), through which around 800,000 commuters pass each day. Here are the results, hot off the press. The intervention led to an increase of 25% pedestrian use in off-peak time, and a whopping 140% increase during peak hours! Rock on Melbourne! Sadly, after a month the painting was removed, but we’re working with them and the city to see if we can get a more permanent set of graphics around the city to increase the use of steps, and more routinised exercise in general.

While here, we also couldn’t resist some experiments on some of the audiences we were presenting to, who were very good sports. Here are a couple of special Australian, public health themed results from an audience of about 300 senior public servants, with half given one given one question, and half the other.

  • Group 1: How many kilojoules in an average meat pie? 2,838
  • Group 2: How many kilojoules in an average meat pie with healthy side salad? 2,396.

Do you think that Australians eat more or less than 9 million/900 million (group1/2) Tim-Tams per year? ….How many Tim Tams do you think Australians eat per year?

  • Group 1 estimate: 52 million
  • Group 2 estimate: 544 million (!)

Yup – highly trained public servants are just as subject to behavioural biases as everyone else.

Finally, very excited that VicHealth have announced that we’re going ahead with a public deliberative Forum on obesity in the New Year, with a high profile media partner. Across the world, governments feel ‘damned if they do, and damned if they don’t’ on policy responses to obesity. The plan is to share the evidence with a randomly selected sample of the Victorian public in detail, allow them to probe the experts, companies and government and then see what they, the public think we should do. It will be a result of great interest to many across the world, hopefully available by mid-2015.

David & Alex