Efforts to promote good health are more vital than ever given that non-communicable diseases have overtaken infectious diseases as the leading cause of death, a senior United Nations official said today, while also warning that they face daunting challenges, including from ‘big business’.
“Today, the tables are turned. Instead of diseases vanishing as living conditions improve, socio-economic progress is actually creating the conditions that favour the rise of non-communicable diseases,” Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in her address to the 8th Global Conference on Health Promotion, held in Helsinki, Finland.
“Economic growth, modernization, and urbanization have opened wide the entry point for the spread of unhealthy lifestyles,” she stated.
Dr. Chan told participants that today, getting people to lead healthy lifestyles and adopt healthy behaviours faces opposition from forces that are “not so friendly.”
“Efforts to prevent non-communicable diseases go against the business interests of powerful economic operators. In my view, this is one of the biggest challenges facing health promotion,” she stated.
“It is not just Big Tobacco anymore. Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda, and Big Alcohol. All of these industries fear regulation, and protect themselves by using the same tactics.”
She said these tactics include front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits, and industry-funded research that “confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt.”
They also include gifts, grants, and contributions to worthy causes that cast these industries as respectable corporate citizens in the eyes of politicians and the public, she added. They include arguments that place the responsibility for harm to health on individuals, and portray Government actions as interference in personal liberties and free choice.
“This is formidable opposition. Market power readily translates into political power. Few Governments prioritize health over big business. As we learned from experience with the tobacco industry, a powerful corporation can sell the public just about anything,” said Dr. Chan.
“Let me remind you. Not one single country has managed to turn around its obesity epidemic in all age groups. This is not a failure of individual will-power. This is a failure of political will to take on big business.”
Dr. Chan also voiced concern about two recent and related trends. “The first relates to trade agreements. Governments introducing measures to protect the health of their citizens are being taken to court, and challenged in litigation. This is dangerous,” she stated.
“The second is efforts by industry to shape the public health policies and strategies that affect their products. When industry is involved in policy-making, rest assured that the most effective control measures will be downplayed or left out entirely. This, too, is well documented, and dangerous.
“In the view of WHO, the formulation of health policies must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests,” Dr. Chan stressed.
The week-long conference, co-hosted by WHO and Finland’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, will assess achievements and aims for health promotion globally. It aims to address what works and how, identifying options for action, available processes, mechanisms and tools.