Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Monetary incentives to quit smoking may work

Can you pay people to quit smoking? It turns out that maybe you can. Back in May, the New Zealand Herald reported:
Offering a cash scholarship as incentive for Maori nursing students to stop smoking has been trialled by an Auckland institute and an anti-smoking organisation says incentives are proving to be an effective tool.
Manukau Institute of Technology Maori faculty leader and nursing lecturer Evelyn Hikuroa conducted a pilot study to assess whether offering a monetary incentive to stop smoking would help people give up, the results of which were published in Nursing Praxis in New Zealand: Journal of Professional Nursing in March.
Co-author of the study and Massey University School of Public Health Associate Professor Marewa Glover said the study showed the incentive did help to a degree.
"We found that the student nurses were highly motivated to stop smoking for their own health, their family and their new career. Providing a cash incentive boosted that, especially because studying can be a financial strain for students," she said.
Rational (and quasi-rational) decision-makers weigh up the costs and benefits of their actions (as we discussed in my ECON110 class today). If the student nurses didn't give up smoking, they faced a financial penalty relative to if they had given up smoking (they missed out on the scholarship). This creates an additional opportunity cost of smoking, raising the cost of smoking. When you increase the costs of an activity, people will do less of it. So, less smoking as a result of the incentive.

You can find the original research paper here (sorry I don't see an ungated version). It was based on a study of twelve student nurses, so I wouldn't hold it up as being a pillar of robust research. However, it does demonstrate that monetary incentives to quit smoking could be effective.

The common counter-argument to using economic incentives (like paying people) is that it reduces the moral or social incentives for changing behaviour. Intrinsic rewards (e.g. to quit smoking for your health or for your family) are replaced by extrinsic rewards, and extrinsic rewards are argued to be neither as effective nor as long-lasting as intrinsic rewards. It would be interesting to see whether this study was effective in terms of longer-run behaviour, especially once the incentives ran out.

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