UN meeting on NCDs falls short on hard commitments, civil society say

A view of the high-level meeting on the theme of scaling up multistakeholder and multisectoral responses for the prevention and control of NCDs in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Photo by: Manuel Elias / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — The third United Nations high-level meeting on noncommunicable diseases may result in a broader dialogue, but will not likely lead to any immediate new financing or strong global commitments.

That’s the main takeaway of civil society experts and advocates who followed the all-day event Thursday, following a busy week for global health issues during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

The NCD Alliance and 300 supporting organizations — including PATH and Vital Strategies — called the meeting a lost opportunity. In an open letter, they criticized weak language in the agreement that governments signed on to and called for more accountability.

“Governments have squandered the opportunity of this [high-level meeting] to close the financing gap for NCDs with real commitments for the health of their people. Leaders who neglect to make significant investments in NCDs are failing their citizens and will be responsible for untold avoidable suffering and loss of life,” reads the letter, which was released Thursday.

The political declaration aims to strengthen leadership to prevent and control NCDs — principally, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, cancers, and diabetes. The declaration does not, however, include either additional funding or a financing facility to help generate it.

Approximately 15 million people between the ages of 30 and 69 die from these chronic diseases each year, according to the World Health Organization. The Sustainable Development Goals aim to reduce the number of NCD-related deaths by one-third by 2030.

“On the whole, [the declaration] is pretty unambitious and non-committal,” said Nina Renshaw, the director of policy and advocacy at the NCD Alliance. “There are some big gaps in the political declaration where effective policy should be. We would like to see clearer language on the effectiveness for fiscal measures, and also on taxation on tobacco and unhealthy foods, like sugar and soda.”

The U.S. has opposed measures that would specifically target some food, alcohol, and tobacco industries, according to Renshaw.

Instead, a heavy onus is placed on individuals to live healthier lifestyles, said Rebecca Perl, vice president of partnerships and initiatives at Vital Strategies.

“I think one of the biggest problems with the [declaration] is the emphasis is more on lifestyle, rather than really making sure that we set up environments and policies so that people can make the right choices and make the healthy choices,” Perl said.

“What I don't like is the document has a lot of language that shifts away from policy intervention — that does not take us where we need to be quickly,” she added.

The agreement also does not specifically reference the WHO’s “best buys” for NCD reduction, which include cutting tobacco use and improving unhealthy diets.

It does, however, broaden the conversation surrounding NCDs to mention air pollution as a source of chronic diseases and — for the first time — recognizes that mental health conditions and neurological disorders contribute to the global burden of noncommunicable diseases.

Individual countries including Ukraine, Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago used the meeting to share their experiences with limiting sugar-sweetened beverages in schools and prohibiting certain kinds of potentially harmful advertising to children.

The WHO also announced a new initiative, SAFER, on Friday. The package outlines five strategies governments can undertake to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.

“It is just tragic, because we know what to do and we are not doing it. We have largely stemmed the problem of communicable diseases, and we are replacing it with a whole new problem,” Perl said.

NCDs. Climate change. Financing. Read more of Devex's coverage from the 73rd U.N. General Assembly here.

For more coverage of NCDs, visit the Taking the Pulse series here.

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  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.