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CEO Perspective

Panel discussion at WHO’s Global Meeting on NCDs in Oman

José Luis Castro President & CEO of Vital Strategies

The following remarks were made by José Luis Castro at the World Health Organization’s global meeting on NCDs in Oman.

We have known for a long time that the NCD epidemic is overwhelming health systems, economies and families worldwide. And we have also known for a long time what to do about it: implement effective regulation, legislation and policies.

The drivers of NCDs are embedded in politics and the economy and the environments people live in. NCDs are essentially a failure of effective public policy.

Civil society and the public need to demand that governments implement the policies that work–what WHO has named “Best Buys.” These are practical, effective low-cost policies that are known to prevent and reduce NCDs. At the same time, the industries that produce and market harmful products—such as cigarettes, junk food and alcohol—must be held to account.

Civil society can identify the people most affected by NCDs and tell their stories—give them a voice, and amplify that voice through mass media and social media.

At Vital Strategies, over the past decade we have supported more than 350 media campaigns in 41 countries to build population-level support for WHO’s most critical issues.

For tobacco control, that includes graphic warnings on cigarette packs, restricting advertising, and banning smoking in public places. Many of our campaigns feature the stories of victims of NCDs.

In part because of this work, more than 1.6 billion people are now protected by comprehensive national smoke-free laws. The single most effective way to reduce NCDs is to implement taxes on harmful products.

In the Philippines, more than 12 million adults, and almost 100,000 children, use tobacco every day. These rates are high, but because of strong advocates within and outside government, there is now a tax on tobacco and alcohol products in the Philippines. And this money is now, in part, being used to pay for universal health coverage for Filipino citizens.

Sugary drink taxes are also remarkably effective. At Vital Strategies, we support media campaigns to build support for taxes on sugary drinks in South Africa.

Alcohol consumption is also a major driver of NCDs. We worked with WHO to develop SAFER, an action package for alcohol policy. WHO is releasing the full SAFER package this Thursday.

The greatest obstacles to adopting restrictions or increasing taxes on tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food are the industries that make and market them.

Civil society must keep the pressure on industry and keep them away from policymaking—even if what they offer seems attractive. Evidence-based policymaking must lead.

Vital Strategies is one of the partners running STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Finally, I want to take a moment to talk about mental health. We welcome including mental health in the NCD agenda.

As with NCDs, we need to apply—in greater measure—a public health approach to mental illness. This starts with prevention. We know we can prevent or reduce serious disability with strategies in early childhood, with efforts to address trauma, and in early identification of symptoms. And we need to eliminate stigma and discrimination.

For low- and middle-income countries, progress on NCDs and mental health is attainable and affordable. Civil society must support these policies and ensure that commercial interests are not allowed to damage health.

People around the world will live longer, healthier lives if we simply invest in and build support for what we know works.