The NCD epidemic – a prescription for action

28 August 2012 | Policy

Dr Kate Allen is Executive Director, of Science & Public Affairs. Kate is responsible for the science and policy programmes at World Cancer Research Fund International. She was part of the executive team overseeing the development of the WCRF/AICR second expert report, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective and the companion policy report, Policy and Action for Cancer Prevention.

The success of the UN high-level meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) last September will help ensure that these diseases get the political priority they deserve.

The recent recognition of NCDs as part of the sustainable development agenda at Rio+20 is another move in the right direction but this global recognition of the NCD epidemic needs to be translated into action to ensure long-term impact.

Prevention should be central to the ongoing work fleshing out a global action plan on NCDs. Like the other major NCDs cancer is largely preventable. About a third of the most common cancers could be prevented by eating and drinking healthily, being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight.

The potential for greater global action on the prevention of cancer will be a key point of discussion at the World Cancer Congress in Montreal in August (27-30), where experts from the cancer community will seek solutions to reduce the impact of cancer around the world and tackle the NCD crisis.

We know that the environment in which we live determines patterns of cancer, mostly by influencing people’s lifestyles but we need to understand how to shape the environment so that it is more conducive to healthy behaviour. For example, it is important to understand how opportunities forleisure-time activity and active transport might improve activity among low-income groups and recently urbanised communities.

Global leaders have a window of opportunity to start getting things right for NCD policy. Our report, “Policy and Action for Cancer Prevention” summarises what has been shown to be effective within a range of different policy areas. Taking a global perspective there are policy recommendations for actors in all sectors, across the physical environmental, economic, and social dimensions. These recommendations will also contribute to tackling the burden of other NCDs such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

NCDs have multiple and complex underlying causes. Policies that reduce exposure to risk factors, including fiscal measures, restrictions onmarketing and promotion, mandatory labelling schemes and controls on the use of health claims, can address these underlying drivers and are also likely to be cost-effective. These policies involve national and international regulation, and respond directly to the global increase in the production, promotion and consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks, and alcohol.

The global action plan on NCDs must address the global drivers of the NCD epidemic and provide a blueprint for action among Member States. The recent WHO discussion paper on global voluntary targets – now including obesity – rightly highlights the importance of linking the global plan to national activities.

Governments, with their prime duty to protect public health, are the single most important actor. We will not beat the NCD epidemic through stimulating consumption and de-regulation. The recent example of legislative measures in Brazil to protect and improve food systems – including in the school setting - shows how governments can act to introduce effective policies.

Dr Kate Allen | 28 August 2012

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