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UN to Plot Strategy against Cancer, Diabetes, Heart Disease

  • Joe DeCapua

Later this month (9/19-20), the U.N. hosts the High-level Meeting on Noncommunicable Diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The goal is to find strategies to reduce the number of avoidable deaths from chronic disease. However, some observers say big industry is trying to influence policy and derail the meeting.

Not very often

Holding a high-level meeting on health-related issues is a rare occurrence for the United Nations.

“It’s only the second time the U.N. has met to discuss illness or ill health. The first time they met was in 2001 and that was to discuss HIV and AIDS. Global health advocates really see this as an opportunity to discuss chronic diseases, so diseases such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and cancer, in a big global forum,” said Dr. Deborah Cohen, investigations editor for the British Medical Journal.

She said the U.N. has the “potential to signal a change” in dealing with these illnesses.

“There’s hundreds of millions of people that suffer from these diseases around the world. Typically, they’ve been thought of as Western illness, so illnesses that affect rich countries. But increasingly what we’re seeing is more and more poorer countries are going to have a large number of people suffering from these illnesses to such an extent that in 20 years time, four out of five people will come from the developing world that have these illnesses,” she said.

Cohen said noncommunicable diseases are not only a health issue, but an economic one as well.

“The people that suffer these illnesses are often people that are at work and then they become ill and they can’t go to work. And so the World Economic Forum has actually waded in and said, look, this is a threat to global economic security. We need to tackle these illnesses,” she said.

Watered down

The British Medical Journal editor has seen the final summit document. And she says many proposed tough regulations have been eliminated or watered down.

“One of the problems with this is is that if you are going to tackle the illnesses, if you are going to prevent the illnesses, it does mean particular policy measures that will have an impact on the alcohol industry, the tobacco industry, the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry. And we all know that these are an incredibly powerful body of industries,” she said.

She said those industries have been busying lobbying prior to the summit. Many of the proposals to curb alcohol sales have been eliminated, such as higher taxes and marketing restrictions. And while the document shows tough measures against tobacco and trans fats, some food industry restrictions were eased.

“Initially in the draft declaration, there was a measure to reduce the amount of salt to five grams per day per person. But that’s come out. Instead, the language is a lot softer. So, you talk about measures to reduce saturated fat, sugar and salt, but there are no specific targets. And I know that has concerned some global health advocates that really think governments need to sign up for specifics,” she said.

Even though the final document for the summit has been watered down, Dr. Cohen said it still gets people talking about the issues. There will be a follow-up meeting in 2014.

“So those countries that haven’t done anything, haven’t started to implement anything, will start to look a little bit bad.”

Cohen calls the U.N. High-level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases a starting point, but an important starting point.