Healthy Lifestyles at the United Nations

I was excited that this week the United Nations held a 2-day summit on non-communicable diseases (NCDs). There were high-level meetings discussing the social and economic costs of NCDs and ways to combat the issue worldwide, including healthier diets, more physical activity, and less tobacco and alcohol use. (I wrote about the summit on the Life-Cise News page.)

NCDs, most notably heart disease, cancer, diabetes, chronic lung disease, and mental illness, have a huge economic and social impact. They pose a clear threat to the economies of the world, especially for lower and middle income nations. A report by the World Economic Forum which was released in advance of the UN summit estimates that NCDs will cost the world $47 trillion in the next 20 years. That includes medical costs, non-medical costs, lost productivity and lives. Cancer alone is expected to cost $458 billion by 2030.

The answer, or part of it, according to the report and the conclusion of the U.N. General Assembly is lifestyle – a healthier one – and access to healthcare for all. Recommendations were to promote healthier diet and more physical activity, reduce tobacco and alcohol use (the World Economic Forum suggested the possibility of higher tobacco and alcohol taxes), and provide better access to healthcare, including mental health.

Yea for the U.N.! It is abundantly clear that NCDs are a large and increasing burden around the world. Dietary changes – like more fast food available worldwide – and a more sedentary lifestyle have produced a dramatic increase in many of these diseases. And it is only getting worse. So, good for the U.N. for beginning to address the issue. They did so because the problem has gotten bad enough that there’s real potential for real economic devastation across the globe, not to mention the social and personal suffering.

And I’m pleased to see the emphasis on healthy lifestyle. These are low-cost, accessible solutions. No, exercise and eating right will not solve the problem. People will still have heart attacks; they’ll still get cancer. (A whole lot of us are examples of that.) But we do know that a healthier lifestyle will have a positive affect. It won’t eliminate NCDs, but it can reduce them.

All is not happiness and light in this story, however. Because of pressure from the food industry, the resolution to address the issue included few specifics. There was no limit set on salt intake, for example. This prompted around 150 organizations to sign a Conflict of Interest Declaration, published in The Lancet, calling for greater transparency in how the U.N. engages with the food and beverage industry.

For example, I listened to some of the meetings which were streamed live. I heard representatives of the food and beverage industry calling for action on this important issue. But they are representing some of the large corporate interests which are a large part of the problem. Obesity and all the health issues associated with it, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, is certainly affected by fast food and sugary sodas.

The signers of the declaration acknowledge that industry can be part of the solution. However, they caution that corporations which profit from sale of alcohol, tobacco, and unhealthy foods should only be brought in once policy has been made. They should not be part of making the policy.

All in all, I still find this a positive story. I am glad that attention is being paid and solutions are being sought. It’s not perfect, but it might be enough – for now.

Julie

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