25/07/2012 13:11 BST | Updated 24/09/2012 06:12 BST

Don't Ask Your Doctor... Ask Your Supermarket


A large majority of the nation have at least one, most of us use them on a weekly basis and I've got two in my wallet. I am, of course, talking about loyalty cards. And the rewards are indeed useful. Freebies, vouchers, money off your groceries, cashback and even air miles. But you're not getting something for nothing. In return, with just one swipe of your card, the retailer gets a wealth of personal information about you, your purchasing habits and lifestyle choices. Something the Cabinet Office thinks could be utilised to improve the nation's health.

It's probably not something you're likely to think about when you meander the aisles, but supermarkets hold substantially more information about you and your lifestyle habits than your own doctor does. According to the Cabinet Office's Behavioural Insights Team, supermarkets should therefore become the front line when it comes to improving the nation's diet and lifestyle by offering tailored health advice to their customers.

When you use your loyalty card, every item you buy, and how and where you paid for it, is instantly stored in a databank of your purchase history, alongside the personal information you willingly gave when you eagerly signed up. Unlike when you visit your doctor, it's hard to lie to a database about your weekly alcohol intake or if you eat your five a day. The Behavioural Insights Team believes this true representation of people's lifestyles, which is harnessed by supermarkets, should be used to identify and target the unhealthy. Something that could be a very effective and cheap prevention tool, if successfully implemented.

Statistics clearly show that leading a poor lifestyle significantly increases your risk of ill health, disease and premature death. According to the World Health Organization, almost 60% of the disease burden in Europe is attributable to lifestyle risk factors, such as tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, high cholesterol, obesity, low fruit and vegetable intake and physical inactivity. And more shockingly, more than half of all years of healthy life are lost as a result of some of these behavioural factors. Considering that a large percentage of health spending in the UK is focused on secondary care, where in many cases the damage is effectively already done, maybe it's time to refocus on prevention and how we can reach people at an early stage to encourage better choices.

In the same way that a customer who buys baby food may be sent an advert or coupon for nappies, parents who are seen to be buying large amounts of fatty foods could be targeted and sent a leaflet on healthy meals for children. And instead of offering discounts to a customer on their favourite wines or spirits, maybe we've come to a point where a booklet outlining daily guidelines and responsible drinking is far more appropriate.

Not only is supermarket data real and tangible, it holds information of the masses. According to market research by TNS, 85% of households in the UK have at least one loyalty card. In 2010, there were 15 million active Tesco Clubcard members and Nectar now has over 18 million cardholders. With 22 Nectar cards being swiped every second of every day, it's easy to understand why the Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the 'nudge unit', is keen to tap into supermarket databases. They hold ready-made action plans.

Push back for this initiative is likely to come from the supermarkets themselves, who have diverse priorities. Profits and increased sales is still recognisably the primary driver, and they are only just realising the power they have in health. The barriers to changing this attitude are considerable, given the business model, but increasingly, public pressure is mounting.

I agree that the Big Brother phenomenon has gone too far in many aspects of our modern world, but with a quarter of the nation classified as obese and a recent report suggesting that without action nearly half of all men and women could be obese by 2030, it's got to a point where everyone should be accepting responsibility for our country's health. Just as food manufacturers have started displaying nutritional information on the front of pre-packed food, often using a traffic light system to flag up food high in fat or sugar, supermarkets should also accept that a shift is needed to change how people shop and what they buy.

Supermarkets have already demonstrated their responsibility to creating a better planet. Plastic bags are fading out, sustainable trading is now high on their agendas and fair-trade products line the shelves. But now, maybe it's time for them to narrow their focus to the end user and take responsibility for the direct health of their customers.

So, next time you're at the checkout and you hear "have you got a loyalty card, sir", glance back along the conveyer belt and consider what your food shop says about you. You never know, one day we may be able to swipe our way to better health.