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Global Health Faces Big Industry Challenges

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan warns of the risks of unhealthy lifestyles.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan warns of the risks of unhealthy lifestyles.

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  • Listen to De Capua report on WHO health promotion conference

Joe DeCapua

The 8th Global Conference on Health Promotion is underway in Helsinki, Finland. The meeting focuses on how public policy can meet the health challenges of a growing and changing global population.


WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan says the challenges facing public health have changed enormously since the start of the 21st Century. She said that health is being shaped by ageing, rapid urbanization and the globalization of unhealthy lifestyles.

“Under the pressure of these forces, chronic noncommunicable diseases have overtaken infectious diseases as the leading cause or morbidity, disability and mortality. As stated in the United Nations Political Declaration on Noncommunicable Diseases, prevention must be the cornerstone of the global response to these costly, deadly and demanding diseases.”

For example, she said the costs for advanced cancer care are unsustainable, even in rich nations. In some countries, 15 percent of the health budget is devoted to diabetes.

“In the developing world, the cost of these diseases can easily cancel out the benefits of economic gain,” she said.

Dr. Chan said that it’s getting more difficult to get people to adopt healthy lifestyles. Behavior change faces opposition “unfriendly forces.”

“Efforts to prevent noncommunicable diseases go against business interests. And these are powerful economic operators. 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.

The WHO Director-general said those tactics include “front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits and industry funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt.”

The Global Conference on Health Promotion runs through June 14th.

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