Providing financial incentives could help people make healthier lifestyle choices, North East academics have found.
Experts at Newcastle University have carried out the largest study of its kind to assess if people may be more likely to adopt healthy behaviours if offered monetary motivation.
The team looked at 16 previous pieces of research, involving more than 30,000 participants, who were tasked with quitting smoking or taking up other healthy behaviours, such as physical activity or attending screening sessions.
It was identified that even small financial incentives, of as little as £3, could make people up to 50% more likely to change their behaviour, when compared with usual care or no intervention.
Newcastle University Research Associate, Dr Emma Giles, lead author of the study, said: “This was an interesting finding and we were surprised at just how strong the effect was.
“People who took part in these reward or penalty schemes were much more likely to adopt healthy behaviours, and if they continued they would have more chance of remaining healthy for longer.
“Many studies used vouchers for supermarkets or similar things rather than actual cash.
“This might be a more acceptable way of implementing this.”
Today a paper published showed financial penalties for not succeeding in the task were also found to work.
With these studies participants had to hand over a set amount of money and would then get that back as they fulfilled the requirements of the healthy behaviour.
The North East anti-smoking group, Fresh, said besides health and family reasons, it is well-known that a big incentive for people to quit smoking is cost.
Ailsa Rutter, director of Fresh, said: “Quitting means people can put the money towards better things, whether that’s home improvements, a holiday or just feeling less hard-up.
“This is one of the reasons why above-inflation price rises can have a major impact on quitting.
“There is some evidence that incentives can work with some very targeted audiences and we keep an open mind.
“The most important thing though is that all healthcare professionals are stressing to their patients the important messages on smoking, which is still our biggest killer.”
It is not yet clear if the financial effect works long-term, after the rewards have stopped, or what the ideal amount of incentive is.
Experts say more work needs to be done to calculate whether any implementation of the technique as a policy would save the NHS money in the future.
Donna Nicholson, 32, from Blakelaw in Newcastle, quit smoking in March 2012.
Having spent around £6 per day on a packet of cigarettes, she knows how financial savings can be an incentive to quit the addiction.
The mother-of-three said: “I was spending around £6 per day to buy a packet of cigarettes and each time I went to the cash machine I’d draw out £10, buy my cigarettes and then waste the rest.
“Doing this every day for years meant we could never afford to spend money on doing lots of nice things as a family.
“Since I’ve quit smoking I feel so much healthier and have noticed such a difference in how much money I’m able to save.”