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Non-communicable diseases on UNGA agenda

September 21, 2011 10:45 IST
In a historic meeting on non-communicable diseases, the international community called on the food and beverages industry as well as the tobacco and pharmaceutical industry to be held accountable for putting profit ahead of public health.

"I especially call on corporations that profit from selling processed foods to children to act with the utmost integrity," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during the two-day high-level meeting, which wrapped up on Tuesday. "I refer not only to food manufacturers, but also the media, marketing and advertising companies that play central roles in these enterprises."

While slamming large corporations, Ban called for public-private partnerships to combat NCDs. "Precisely because I am a champion of the private sector, I must acknowledge some hard truths," he said. "There is a well-documented and shameful history of certain players in industry who ignored the science -- sometimes even their own research -- and put public health at risk to protect their own profits."

Civil society leaders, however, said that the involving large corporations in developing anti-NCD policies was a mistake and undermined these efforts. 

"The global community has removed the tobacco industry's seat from the tobacco control table due to its history of interference in policy," Gigi Kellett, a campaign director with Corporate Accountability International, said on Tuesday. "It's time we hold other industries contributing to or profiting from today's public health epidemics similarly accountable."   

Civil society organisations described involving corporations as a "conflict of interest." "Having industry at the table can be ruinous for consensus on public health priority-setting, and virtually guarantees the lowest and most useless common denominator," said Patti Rundall of the International Baby Food Action Network.

Non-communicable diseases, which include diabetes, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, strokes and heart ailments, kill 36 million people, every year, which is 63 per cent of deaths worldwide.

Eighty percent of NCDs deaths occur in low and middle-income countries. According to the World Health Organization, deaths from NCDs will increase by 17 per cent in the next decade and it could be 24 per cent in Africa. NCDs stem, in large measure, from lifestyle choices like smoking, eating unhealthy food, stress and lack of exercise.

According to WHO, chronic diseases and injuries are the leading causes of death and disability in India. It is expected that the NCD burden will continue to increase during the next 25 years.

According to WHO in India, the number of years of life lost because of coronary heart disease deaths before the age of 60 years will increase from 7·1 million in 2004 to 17·9 million in 2030, which means that, by 2030, more life years will be lost as a result of these disease in India than is projected for China, Russia, and the United States.

During the high-level meeting, gathered leaders also adopted a political declaration to fight against NCDS the declaration calls on governments to "advance the implementation of multi-sectoral, cost-effective interventions in order to reduce the impact of the common NCD risk factors…without prejudice to the right of sovereign nations to determine and establish their taxation policies, other policies, where appropriate."

Speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community, Suriname President Desire Delano Bouterse said that declaration fell "somewhat short" of expectations. He noted that the declaration did not "elaborate a clear goal and corresponding road-map for the global NCD campaign."

Bouterse also pointed out a "lack of strong commitments on targets, resources, a global collaborative NCD mechanism." He also highlighted that there was a reservation in calling the spread of NCDs an "epidemic."

Besides the tremendous health toll, NCDs cause huge economic losses for countries as well. It is estimated that coping with these diseases could cost the global economy over 40 trillion by 2030. In 2005, NCDs cost for China and India were $18 billion and $9 billion respectively.

While some participants noted that no additional funds had been pledged to combat the problems, others pointed out that the meeting had generated buzz around the issue, which had been missing. This is only the second time that a health-related issue has been debated during the opening week of the General Assembly.

During the high-level meeting, Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization, spoke out strongly against the tobacco industry.  Tobacco use kills nearly six million people a year, according to the World Health Organization. By 2020, this number will increase to 7.5 million, accounting for 10 per cent of all deaths.

"I call on heads of state and heads of government to stand rock-hard against the despicable efforts of the tobacco industry to subvert this treaty," said Chan. "We must stand firm against their open and extremely aggressive tactics."

Chan called for governments to fully implementation of UN's anti-smoking framework convention on tobacco control, as well as hike taxes on cigarettes to protect health and generate revenue. "In terms of demand reduction, increases in tobacco taxes and prices are the most effective measure," she said. "The same is true for taxes on alcohol."

Betwa Sharma