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Updated: 06 October 2011

Commentary on the UN High Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) Prevention (Sept. 2011)

Commentary on the UN High Level Meeting on NCDs

AusPAnet Director and Heart Foundation (WA) Director of Cardiovascular Health Trevor Shilton reports from New York where he was a delegate at the United Nations High Level Meeting on Non-communicable Disease Prevention (representing the International Union for Health Promotion and Education (IUHPE)).

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The Political Declaration of the United Nations High Level Meeting on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) was accepted at 10.10am Monday 19 September. On balance it is a very positive affirmation of the importance of prevention and a potential watershed for increased focus on physical activity.

The two-day high-level General Assembly meeting, attended by more than 30 heads of State and Government and at least 100 other senior ministers and experts agreed to a declaration calling for a multi-pronged campaign by governments, industry and civil society to set up by 2013 the plans needed to curb the risk factors behind the four groups of NCDs – cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes.

Sec General Ban Ki-moon stressed that three in every five deaths in the world are from NCDs and that each and every one of us is touched by this. He added that the prognosis is grim with a likely 17% increase in the next decade.  He also stressed that while the statistics are alarming it costs next to nothing to impact quickly on these diseases – stressing that policy interventions were effective and inexpensive.

Both Ban Ki-moon and WHO secretary General Margaret Chan stressed that the health sector cannot do this on its own, it required political leadership at the highest level and engagement with the whole of Government - transport, schools, agriculture, planning, as well as the private sector, NGOs and civil society.

Ban Ki-moon was strong on industry influence. He said that 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”.  

“This is more than healing individuals it is about saving the future”  he said.

Margaret Chan commended the UN and heads of state on their leadership and courage. She described NCDs as a ‘slow motion disaster’, “This was an urgent call for policy change. With 40 million pre-school children overweight or obese, this was a signal that something is terribly wrong in the policy environment. It requires policy change at the highest level” she said.

Both leaders stressed how this is also broader than a health issue because it will bring economies to their knees. Dr Chan quoted a Harvard study that predicted that over the next 20 years NCDs will cost 30 trillion US dollars.

The political declaration … My take…
 - by Trevor Shilton, Heart Foundation

  • It is a great start. It is a strongly worded document that will accelerate the international progress on NCDs
  • It will provide a framework for saving millions of people from preventable death and disability due to NCDs.
  • It falls short in some key areas. The overarching goal and set of time-bound targets is missing, but there is a commitment to develop in 2012 a set of global targets and indicators. This will be led by the WHO.
  • Member states have agreed to hold a comprehensive review in 2014. This is good as it will necessitate review of commitments in the current declaration.
  • Some contentious, or contested,  issues were supported e.g.
    • Commitment to accelerate the implementation of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (There is a great deal of interest in the Australian initiative on plain packaging!),
    • Commitment to eliminate industrially produced trans fats in foods, and to implement initiatives to reduce consumption of salt, sugars and saturated fats.
    • Member states have agreed to introduce policies and actions to promote healthy diets and increase physical activity in the entire population.
    • While the declaration acknowledges the importance of increasing taxes to reduce tobacco consumption, the language on curbing the harmful use of alcohol, is weak (no mention of price and availability, or marketing).
    • Agreement to recommendations to restrict marketing to children of foods high in fats, sugar and salt – and to reverse the rising trends in obesity in children, youth and adults.

The Declaration also calls for increased resources for NCD Prevention.

NCDs have finally made it to the UN.. and that is a good thing.

So where can we in Australia do more?
- by Trevor Shilton, Heart Foundation

  • Expanding robust partnerships with transport and Local Government to ensure safe and accessible walking and cycling facilities
  • Mandating planning codes based on healthy-active design principles such as those in Healthy Spaces and Places.
  • Prioritising health and physical education (for all children) in the national curriculum
  • Banning trans fats in the food supply (NYC has done this)
  • Mandatory kilojoule labelling in fast food outlets (NYC Has done this too, and NSW has committed to it).
  • Continued strengthening of tobacco control
  • Food reformulation to reduce salt and saturated fat in the food supply
  • Curbing the extensive marketing to children, particularly on television, of foods and beverages that are high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sugars, or salt.
  • Introduction of a robust front of pack food labeling system, based on ‘traffic lights’.
  • Continuing to strengthen and expand hard hitting public education campaigns on tobacco, nutrition, physical activity and alcohol.
  • Ensuring secure and expanded funding to maximise implementation of these initiatives.

- Commentary and views by Trevor Shilton (Heart Foundation)

Further information regarding the UN High Level Meeting on Non-communicable Diseases is available from the World Health Organization website.

Year published: 2011

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