WHO Panel Urges Global Leaders to Step Up Fight Against Chronic Disease

Kerry Dooley Young

June 01, 2018

A World Health Organization (WHO) report released today urged the leaders of nations around the world to apply more political might to fighting the root causes of preventable chronic diseases. The report advocated for higher taxes on tobacco and alcohol and for programs to promote exercise.

The report from the WHO's Independent High-level Commission on Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs) also urged the top leaders of nations to take responsibility for this agenda instead of delegating it to their ministers of health alone. Governments need to step up regulation and engagement with the private sector, the group said. It also called for consideration of the establishment of a multidonor trust fund for this work.

Even with recent successes in promoting public health, too many people will die prematurely from often preventable conditions linked to smoking, excess alcohol intake, unhealthy diet, and lack of exercise, the report said. Cancer, diabetes, and lung and heart diseases kill about 41 million people annually and account for 71% of all deaths globally, according to a WHO press release about the report. About 15 million of these deaths occur in persons aged 30 to 70 years.

Combating chronic disease requires making societal changes that extend well beyond the power held by national cabinet ministers alone, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD. Tedros said he knows this from his own experience. He earlier served as both minister of health and minister of foreign affairs for Ethiopia, according to his official biography.

"We need political commitment from the highest levels to achieve significant change," Tedros said at a Friday press conference.

The report suggests that governments consider "a fresh relationship" with food and soft drink producers as well with the technology, transportation, and media industries. The report, for example, urges governments to restrict the marketing to children of foods that contain excessive amounts of sugars, sodium, saturated fats, and trans fats.

It also urged "governments to take the lead in creating health-protecting environments through robust laws, where and when necessary, and through dialogue, where appropriate.

"Dialogue must not, however, replace regulation in cases where regulation is the most or the only effective measure," the report said.

Going Soft on Soft Drink Tax?

The new report wavers with respect to recent WHO support for taxing soft drinks that have high sugar levels. In a 2016 press release about a previous report, WHO said: "Taxing sugary drinks can lower consumption and reduce obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay."

According to that report, "policies that lead to at least a 20% increase in the retail price of sugary drinks would result in proportional reductions in consumption of such products."

In the report released Friday, the WHO's NCD group said that its members could not resolve a conflict among themselves about the merits of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages in order to combat obesity and diabetes.

As a result, the report did not include a recommendation for an increase in taxes on these soft drinks. At the Friday press conference, Sania Nishtar, PhD, cochair of the NCD group, said that one fellow commissioner on the panel raised questions about the "strength of evidence" for making this recommendation. She did not identify the colleague and said she expected further discussion and research on this point.

"Clearly, this does not preclude the opportunity for us to come back to this issue and make a very clear statement," said Nishtar of the new report.

Following the press conference, Tedros used social media to support raising the cost of soft drinks for consumers.

"Let me be absolutely clear: WHO stands firm on #SodaTax. Sugary drinks contribute to the global rise of noncommunicable diseases. Taxing sugary drinks is an effective way to reduce sugar consumption and decrease the risk of diabetes & obesity," said a tweet from his verified @DrTedros account.

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