Health officials from almost 200 countries adopted nine targets for fighting cancer, heart disease and diabetes, and called for curbs on marketing unhealthy food to children, under a plan to cut the world’s leading causes of death.
Nations at the World Health Assembly in Geneva agreed to a target to reduce average daily salt consumption by 30 percent by 2025, to cut smoking rates by 30 percent, and to cut harmful alcohol use by 10 percent. Other objectives include reducing inactivity and halting the rise in diabetes and obesity, to meet a goal adopted last year to reduce deaths from so-called non-communicable disease by 25 percent by 2025.
“That’s a pretty good list,” said Cary Adams, a former Lloyds Banking Group Plc executive who’s now the chief executive officer of the Union for International Cancer Control. “If you’d said three years ago that we’d be setting out those targets, not many people would have agreed that that was even possible,” Adams said in an interview in Geneva before the resolution was formally passed.
Non-communicable diseases account for almost two in three deaths globally, and may cost the world $47 trillion in productivity losses and medical treatments by 2030, the World Economic Forum and Harvard University said in a 2011 study. The targets adopted today are the first specific goals agreed since the United Nations General Assembly resolved in 2011 to fight the illnesses as “a threat to the economies of many member states.”
The accord also calls on governments to implement policies to reduce the impact on children of marketing of foods and soft drinks that are high in saturated fats, trans-fats, free sugars and salt.
The objectives were approved by a committee of the World Health Assembly and must be formally adopted by the full assembly later today.
While the targets are voluntary, regulatory measures may be needed in some countries to compel food and drink makers to comply, Srinath Reddy, president of the World Heart Federation and the Public Health Foundation of India, said in an interview in Geneva.
“Self-regulation alone cannot be the means of preventing children from being exposed to harmful advertising,” Reddy said. “The public health community is always very suspicious of their intent whenever the beverage companies and others come and say, ’We’re altering our products and we’re intending to have a healthier product portfolio.’ We’d like to encourage them to do it, but we hope that that’s not just window dressing.”
Almost 80 percent of deaths from non-communicable diseases occur in low- and middle-income countries, spurred by tobacco use, physical inactivity, alcohol abuse and unhealthy diets, according to the World Health Organization. The adoption of unhealthy diets in developing countries that were previously more common in developed countries is contributing to the trend, according to the WHO.
“It’s no coincidence that the expansion of the junk food market into the developing world coincides with rising rates of diabetes in these countries,” said John Stewart, a campaign director for Corporate Accountability International, a Boston-based advocacy group.
The WHO recommends less than 5 grams of salt or 2 grams of sodium per person per day. Americans over 2 years old consume an average of 3.4 grams of sodium a day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lowering sodium intake too much may increase the risk of some health problems, the U.S. Institute of Medicine wrote in a study published May 14.
“The reduction of salt intake in populations is unavoidably a slow process as technological barriers and food safety concerns need to be addressed,” said Lisa McCooey, deputy director general of FoodDrinkEurope, an industry organization that represents companies including Coca-Cola Co., Nestle SA and Unilever NV. “Consumer acceptance of reduced salt products is critical so allowing for the necessary taste adaptation over time is key,” she said in an e-mail.