This week the world’s political leaders met at the UN General Assembly to discuss one of the greatest health challenges to affect us globally – the burden of non-communicable diseases.
Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – or chronic diseases – are long-term debilitating conditions that cause immense pain and suffering. They include cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental health, musculoskeletal conditions and many more illnesses.
We all know someone who suffers from one of these conditions, and it is no surprise that they disproportionately affect our most disadvantaged citizens.
Preventing and managing these conditions has become a global challenge.
The scale and magnitude of the problem is highlighted by the fact that this issue has become an ongoing focus of the UN General Assembly.
It is time for action, and it is time for a change.
The United Nations High-level Meeting on NCDs
The UN General Assembly is the main decision-making body of the UN, represented by 193 member states including Australia.
On 27 September 2018, the UN hosted its third High-level Meeting on NCDs in New York.
They convene High-level Meetings to focus on specific issues that require the highest level of coordinated action, and to demand international cooperation and urgent attention.
These High-level Meetings can focus on any number of important issues from health or poverty to climate change or nuclear disarmament.
In 2011, the first High-level Meeting on NCDs was held. This was the second time in the history of the UN that a High-level Meeting was held on a health-related issue, the first being HIV/AIDS. This reflects the enormity of the challenge we are faced with today.
We must give NCDs the same level of priority as we once did and continue to do with HIV/AIDS.
It was originally planned that this third High-level Meeting on NCDs would provide the opportunity for member states to report on their progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 3.4 – to reduce premature death from NCDs by one third by 2030.
Unfortunately, member states did not report on their progress.
If they had, Australia would have reported that it is not on track to meet the target.
The Political Declaration
Instead of providing a comprehensive status update on NCDs, our leaders have made a vague and ambiguous Political Declaration containing no real targets or indicators to track meaningful progress and get the world back on track. Without such targets, it is impossible to hold our governments to account.
What is even more disappointing is the outrageous seven-year gap between the next proposed High-level Meeting. The length of time between meetings is widening – 2011, 2014, 2018, 2025 – yet the problem is not reducing.
We know the solutions, but they are mysteriously absent from the Political Declaration. It is extremely disappointing to see that they have so easily glossed over the action that is necessary for change.
There is no reference to the WHO Best Buys, and they have directly avoided any mention of strong fiscal and economic interventions (taxation). Despite the Lancet Taskforce on NCDs and Economics publishing a wealth of knowledge and evidence, they receive little more than a nod.
It is clear that the economic and business interests of certain high-income countries have been prioritised and used to silence the rest. This is incredibly disheartening as we know there are countries and governments championing for change.
We know that Big Food, Big Alcohol, Big Tobacco and Big Pharma have been lobbying hard for this ambiguity, that they are the reason the best buys aren’t mentioned and that they will continue to use any delay tactic they can. We must call them out on their unethical behaviour because until we stop them, we will only continue to see further preventable suffering and loss of life.
For more information on the Political Declaration our countries have signed, Vital Strategies have put together a ‘Winners and Losers’ plain-language breakdown
Following the meeting – what is next?
So what will happen following this great meeting of the world’s political heads?
Our leaders will go back to their countries and continue to do as they always have – unless we make them do more.
All governments and government departments globally must be held accountable. NCDs negatively impact more than half of the sustainable development goals. We need long-term, strong and meaningful whole-of-government action in order to truly see change.
The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) has joined nearly 300 civil society organisations from around the globe, in a statement calling on our governments to act now and stop ignoring the problem. They have a responsibility to prioritise the health and welfare of their citizens and instead have failed to capitalise on the perfect opportunity this high-level meeting presented them.
FARE and other public organisations will continue to hold governments to account, we will continue to call out the undue industry influence, and we will continue to advocate for change because we have had enough!
We can, and we must do more.