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Take A Stick And Whack B.C. Carrot Rewards

09/06/2015 04:59 EDT | Updated 09/06/2016 05:59 EDT
David Toase via Getty Images
Carrot on a Stick
Terry Lake's gut seems to be telling him one thing, yet the B.C. health minister is doing the opposite. Unfortunately, he's wasting taxpayer money betting against his own common sense.

The BC government announced this week that it will spend $2.5 million to buy loyalty program points to distribute to B.C. residents who track "healthy" things they do through a private company's iPhone app, Carrot Rewards. The federal government, in an election year spending spree, is kicking in another $5 million.

"I have some degree of skepticism," Lake told The Vancouver Sun when asked about the program. "But I think it's worth a try."

You're not the only skeptic, Minister. Unfortunately, we skeptics have to rely on you to say no to pricey, hare-brained schemes like Carrot Rewards.

Despite media reports that the program will get people to exercise, Lake announced only three ways to get the loyalty points: taking two online questionnaires and using some obscure B.C. government "shopping sense tool" designed to teach us rubes "how to make quick, healthy and affordable choices at the grocery store."

But fear not, Lake and the company promise more loyalty points are coming for more "healthy" things - all on the taxpayer's dime.

At this point, the government and Social Change Rewards Inc. seem to only care about collecting your data. Through the app, they will soon have their hands on all sorts of new information about you, including how you eat, where you buy food, what physical ailments you have, and where and when you exercise. Yet there is no privacy statement or security plan available for public discussion.

The term "nanny state" gets thrown around a lot, especially online, but this program is a textbook example of it: an overprotective government unduly interfering with personal choice. We elect governments to provide vital shared services and to manage our tax money effectively -- not to mother us.

But even if you are philosophically fine with the idea of government parenting you (be sure to remember your MLA this Thanksgiving -- they want to know why you never call anymore), why spend $7.5 million on a program that will likely yield no long-term results or benefits -- except an infusion of taxpayer cash to bank accounts of the private partner and already-wealthy loyalty programs?

A Direct Marketing case study on an Air Miles-for-exercise pilot project bragged that 46,000 YMCA members signed up for the program. Of course, most of these YMCA members -- people who already pay $59 per month -- were lured by the 25 free Air Miles for opting-in, and then carried on with their normal routine. Conveniently, no long-term statistics on the program seem to be available.

Even if the promise of 25 Air Miles (enough to fly you from your house to the end of your driveway) did convince a few people to take out YMCA memberships, many of us with Fitbit step counters have a good idea what likely happened. Nearly half of all Fitbits are discarded within six months -- there's an initial rush when you get it and then things usually go back to normal.  

Lake offers no comparison to other uses for the money. What long-term health benefits would occur if government built $7.5 million in school playgrounds? Or spent $7.5 million cutting waitlists for surgery? Or made sure people had timely access to family physicians? Or improved rural or aboriginal drinking water quality to reduce the dozens of boil water advisories in effect across B.C. right now? Or any of a hundred other ideas.

The provincial government should take a stick and whack Carrot Rewards.

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