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Lots of noise on the news today about Sir Liam Donaldson's (the Chief Medical Officer) annual report "On the State of Public Health 2008", in which he recommends (among many other things) a minimum price of 50p/unit of alcohol in an attempt to reduce heavy drinking. Based on research by Sheffield University, Sir Liam notes:

Lots of noise on the news today about Sir Liam Donaldson's (the Chief Medical Officer) annual report "On the State of Public Health 2008", in which he recommends (among many other things) a minimum price of 50p/unit of alcohol in an attempt to reduce heavy drinking. Based on research by Sheffield University, Sir Liam notes:

There is a clear relationship between price and consumption of alcohol. As price increases consumption decreases, although not equally across all drinkers. Price increases generally reduce heavy drinkers’ consumption by a greater proportion than they reduce moderate drinkers’ consumption. [648k pdf link]

The reason for this is that heavy drinkers tend to choose cheaper drinks, so in the spirit (if not the method) of libertarian paternalism, an artificial floor in the price would have an asymmetrical effect, affecting the heavy drinkers but leave the moderate drinkers relatively unaffected. The benefits of such a move would be reduce the number of deaths from alcohol-related causes, reduce crime, hospital admissions, absenteeism and unemployment, saving about £1b over ten years.

Fiscal incentives have their place of course, but how could design help with this sort of thing? Reading the coverage of the report, I was reminded of the section in Victor Papanek's Design for the Real World that tells the story of designing some of the first childproof pill boxes. A student of Papanek's devised a cylindrical box with a series of coloured dots around the lid and base which had to be lined up correctly before the lid could be removed. Papanek explains that this project gave rise to the various "push & turn" and "lift & twist" pill boxes that medicine is packaged in now. I found a more recent project in this area covered here, which highlights well that the challenge of making pill packaging is to allow adults (even infirm adults) to open the box while stopping children. Or as someone from that project described it, making the boxes "cognitively difficult to open rather than physically difficult". So how about some design standards for beer cans that use the same strategy to encourage people to drink until a certain point?

New policies that try to change behaviour will always raise hackles, but as Matthew Taylor notes, alcohol is already taxed for this reason, and as Sir Liam concludes:

"Passive drinking kills. It causes family breakdown and violent crime. It costs the economy billions of pounds. It causes misery. It affects many spheres of life and leaves no communities untouched.

Quite simply, England is drinking far too much. England has an alcohol problem. Alcohol is harming society. Alcohol is not simply a problem for the minority who are dependent on it – it is a problem for everybody."

How would you design a beer can?

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