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Scientists are launching an extensive study into whether redesigning supermarkets could cut shoppers’ food, alcohol and cigarette consumption.

Researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol have won a Wellcome Collaborative Award to investigate how layout and product placement, as well as the shape and size of food, alcohol and tobacco products, affect shopping behaviour - and whether environmental ‘nudges’ in supermarkets and other food and drink businesses could have a positive effect.

Some 1,700 grocers, 140 student bars and 100 workplace cafeterias are set to take part in the study over four years.

The method of prompting healthier behaviours - providing information via targeted campaigns - had proved largely ineffective, Cambridge’s Behaviour and Health Research Unit claimed. But environmental ‘nudges’ had “potential to deliver larger population-level effects”.

Research in this area was a “critical part of preventing heart attacks, obesity, stroke, cancer and diabetes,” added Wellcome head of population health Mary De Silva.

The food environment “needed to be radically reformed utilising nudges, rewards and penalties, as well as some bold ‘shoves’ from government and business”, said Food Ethics Council executive director Dan Crossley.

Data collected by Which? last year revealed that of 77,165 promotions where nutritional data was available, more than half (53%) were on less healthy foods.

Responsible retailing was “not about morality versus profit margins,” said Crossley. “In the long run, the public will reward food and drink retailers who help them take choices that are good for themselves and the planet.”

Tesco’s “Little Helps to Healthier Living” campaign in May saw the retailer introduce “little swaps” it said would help customers switch to lower sugar, fat or salt products, alongside lower prices on fresh products such as apples, bananas and tomatoes fruit & veg.

But with pressure for supermarkets to be healthier, there are worries certain categories such as alcohol could be unfairly demonised.

“Recent research has shown that moderate alcohol consumption can actually have beneficial effects on both wellbeing and health outcomes”, said Campaign for Real Ale CEO Tim Page.

‘Nudging’ customers risked “treating the sensibly majority like children who need to be influenced subconsciously”, he said. “There should be greater acknowledgement of the beneficial effects of responsible drinking, rather than constant reiteration of a narrative that is only applicable to those who abuse alcohol.

“The logical approach would be to look at how responsible drinkers can be better educated about both the benefits and potential risks of alcohol and allowed to make up their own mind - rather than exploring ways to remove freedom of choice from consumers by attempting to control behaviour through “nudge” techniques.”