Below is an op-ed I wrote for the Baltimore Sun in the form of a letter to President Obama.
A challenge to the ex-smoker in chief
July 25, 2009
Dear Mr. President, I feel your pain. It is no fun being judged by others for a personal habit, regardless of whether it’s bad for your health or not. I cringed the other week when, under the guise of wondering whether your new anti-smoking law will be effective, McClatchy reporter Margaret Talev rattled off a series of nosy questions about your own smoking habits during your first afternoon news conference. As a person who battled a serious weight problem and exhibited horrendous eating behaviors for decades, I totally understand why you needled Ms. Talev for prying into your private life. Despite the fact that I lost about 180 pounds six years ago, I still struggle to stay on that proverbial wagon that you claim to fall off of “once every month or so.” Which leads me to the reason for my correspondence today.
Following the teachings of your trusted advisor, Cass Sunstein (co-author of Nudge), I’d like to challenge you to a mutually beneficial nudge-off. I couldn’t help but notice that you made a concerted effort to make it clear that you are “a former smoker,” rather than a smoker who just can’t seem to stay quit. No doubt, Mr. Sunstein taught you the important lesson of changing your default self-image. If you ever “fall off the wagon” again and smoke a cigarette, instead of feeling like you’ve failed and that you’re a smoker again, the moment you take that last drag you’ll return to your default nonsmoker position. It’s a subtle change of thought, but it can be quite empowering. Now you won’t have to struggle with the pangs of quitting again because you’ve already decided that you’re a nonsmoker. However, the difficulty of making sure you don’t stray again remains. That’s where our nudge-off will come into play.
Through simple diet and exercise I was able to lose almost half my body weight in less than a year, but I couldn’t have done it without significantly altering my self-defeating eating habits. The experience has given me keen insight into behavior change, and played no small role in drawing me to my current position at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where I am directing several projects designed to positively influence health and eating behaviors. The projects are based on the national Healthy Monday campaign’s communications model, which incorporates weekly reminders and nudges every Monday in hopes that the intended behavior change will not only take place that day but will carry on through the week.
After reading Mr. Sunstein’s and Richard Thaler’s book, Nudge, I realized the Monday model is a perfect complement to their theory on how to improve “decisions about health, wealth and happiness,” or in other words, nudging people to make the right decisions. In your case, Mr. President, if you fall off the wagon again, using periodic messaging each Monday will offer you 52 nudges a year to get right back on, reinforcing your new nonsmoker default self-image. The model can be implemented in countless ways. Currently, with the leadership of several obesity experts at Johns Hopkins, I am directing a caloric awareness research project based on the Monday model. I’ve also reached out to Baltimore City Public Schools in hopes of incorporating a cooking program for kids each Monday. In an effort to save money, help the environment, and improve students’ health, the school system’s top chef has already decided to offer Meatless Monday menu options during the next school year. So, here’s my proposal: I challenge you to fight any urge to smoke each Monday for the next year; in return, since I need to lose about 50 pounds, on the same day I promise to consume less than 2,000 calories worth of food and drink. Should I falter, I will donate $100 dollars to the charity of your choice or, should you like, I could take over your dog walking duties for a month – your call. If you falter, well, you are the president of the United States, so perhaps the most I could hope for is a phone call.
Ralph Loglisci, Baltimore
The writer is project director for the Johns Hopkins Healthy Monday Project.
Link to story in the Sun. Saturday, July 25, 2009