Global Community to Accelerate Action Against Tobacco Smoking

Washington — In a special session of the U.N. General Assembly September 19-20, the world community is expected to agree on an “action-oriented” plan for combating noncommunicable diseases (NCD). According to a State Department official, the plan is expected to have an emphasis on healthy lifestyles as the key step in prevention of these disorders, which include cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cancer and diabetes.

At a Washington panel discussion September 12, Ann Blackwood summarized four months of negotiations over the document, which is expected to be formally adopted next week at the conclusion of the U.N. General Assembly’s Special Session on Noncommunicable Diseases. Blackwood is the director of health programs for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs within the U.S. Department of State and a participant in the discussions.

“International collaboration is highlighted,” she told the audience of health and development specialists attending the Washington event, hosted by the Center for Global Development. The transfer of technology from developed to developing countries, and the inclusion of NCD awareness and prevention at all stages of development projects, are other activities the communiqué will recommend, Blackwood said.

Noncommunicable diseases killed more than 39 million people in 2008, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which is 63 percent of all deaths occurring worldwide that year. About 80 percent of the NCD deaths occurred in low- and middle-income nations, a statistic “dispelling the myth that such conditions are mainly a problem of affluent societies,” according to a WHO report on the rising NCD death toll issued in April 2011.

The U.N. session is intended to raise awareness on the significance of NCDs as a factor in global health and to mobilize collaborative, international action to better prevent, treat and understand these diseases.

One key objective for U.S. participants in the discussions of the document that will be presented to the U.N. for approval was to emphasize “the idea of health in all policies,” according to a representative from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

NCDs are such a wide-reaching problem, Holly Wong said, that all government officials should be thinking about how the activities of their agencies might promote or prevent noncommunicable diseases. “Trying to include agencies in finance, transportation, agriculture, education, energy and all the other sectors in this discussion has been an important way of looking at risks and looking at how we can promote healthy choices.”

Wong said HHS will be asking the health industry, business and society at large for ideas to reduce the incidence and damage of NCDs.

HHS was effective in negotiating the inclusion of strong language on tobacco control, Wong said, including accelerated implementation of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2003, and provisions advocating greater taxation on tobacco as a means to reduce tobacco use.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already established a solid record of helping other governments reduce tobacco use. Patricia Simone with the Center for Global Health said the Global Tobacco Control program has supported tobacco use surveillance in more than 100 countries. The work collects data that demonstrates tobacco use as a risk factor for other serious diseases, and it also builds local skills in health data collection and analysis that will support future efforts to assess a population’s health habits.

The international focus on the damage caused by noncommunicable diseases dates back to a study conducted several years ago, involving several influential bodies including the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The study found that a nation’s investments in the prevention of NCDs would produce the greatest benefit in prolonging life expectancy, reducing disability and extending life productivity for its citizens.

By Charlene Porter

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