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January 24, 2018

To Strengthen Economies, the World Must Fight NCDs

This week the world’s top business and government leaders will gather in Davos, Switzerland to address our growing global economy for the annual World Economic Forum (WEF). Leading up to the meeting, WEF published the Global Risks Report 2018, making the case that advancements in human and environmental health are integral to global economic growth. Now more than ever, we know that failure to address these issues is a significant risk to societies, economies and international relations. What is more, our response to these threats must be commensurate to their global reach.

Every year, 39.5 million people die from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – the risk factors for which include air pollution, physical inactivity, and the consumption of unhealthy products. The overarching theme of this year’s meeting is “creating a shared future in a fractured world,” and among the issues in the WEF’s agenda for this week are consumption, food security and agriculture, and environment and energy. Each of these areas plays an integral role in public health, and the cost of inaction on these issues is astounding.

Considering the number of lives at stake, it’s time to lay to rest the false dichotomy that pits health against profits – a dichotomy that suggests that improved public health outcomes can only be achieved at the detriment of corporate profits. We cannot build a functioning, sustainable global economy when preventable disease, disability and premature death remains so costly, especially among people in their most economically active years.

Our next generation is already suffering: 42 million children under five years of age—three quarters of them in developing countries—are overweight or obese, increasing their lifetime risk of disease and death. Without urgent action, this will increase to 70 million by 2025. McKinsey & Company estimated the global cost of this epidemic to be $2 trillion per year. This growing problem can be reversed with a systemic and sustained approach to addressing key leading factors, such as steadily increasing consumption of unhealthy food and drinks.

The tobacco epidemic also continues to be a leading threat to our world’s health and environmental progress and global economic development. The economic cost of smoking is estimated to be two trillion dollars – equivalent to almost two percent of the world’s total economic output. Tobacco is linked to 7.1 million deaths annually, and tobacco cultivation traps many vulnerable tobacco farmers in a cycle of poverty. In several countries, pilot projects are indicating that tobacco farmers are able to increase their incomes and wellbeing by switching to alternative crops. Encouraging tobacco farmers to switch to food crops could also contribute to improving food security.

As our world becomes increasingly urbanized, urban planners and the global development community are coming to see that dense urban centers can be transformative engines—concentrated centers of innovation where policy interventions can be rapidly developed and adopted. Action on the city level to reduce environmental and behavioral risks to health such as obesity and air pollution, can positively impact millions of people.

An example of this transformative potential can be seen in the work of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Initiative for Global Road Safety (BIGRS). Road crashes take an especially devastating toll on the young, ranking as the main cause of death among 15-29 year-olds, who account for the bulk of the 1.25 million annual road deaths. Even higher numbers are left disabled and unable to work. Eighty percent of these deaths are in low- and middle-income countries. These aren’t just preventable personal tragedies – they are draining economies of young, able-bodied workers who would otherwise help to improve the economic wellbeing of their families, neighborhoods and communities. BIGRS is helping cities around the world to implement proven policies to reduce road crashes and related death and disability.

Inaction poses significant economic costs, and implementing policies to address these issues should not be viewed as an expense. Supporting policies to improve health and the environment isn’t altruism or idealism – it’s good business. Every preventable death and disability is simultaneously a personal tragedy and an economic loss. Every life saved is an opportunity for growth, development and sustainable progress.

This year’s meeting is an opportunity for multi-sectoral consideration of the impact of what we consume, what we grow, and the environments we create, on health and the planet. If we truly aspire to a better, shared future, health and our environment need to be a focus – not an afterthought – for sustainable growth that benefits the global economy, the environment, and the world’s people. We must develop alternatives that are better for people and our planet, as well as profits.

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