Skip to content ↓
Vital Stories

Promises, Promises…8 Takeaways from the U.N. General Assembly

The U.N. General Assembly brought 200 world leaders to New York including U.S. President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a jam-packed week including five summits on: the environment, universal health coverage, sustainable development, financing for development, and priorities for small island countries.

Vital Strategies tracked developments critical to several health issues throughout the week, and worked to ensure that the “best buys” for health and our policy priorities received the attention they deserve.

Click here to read the full details of our eight takeaways.

Here are eight takeaways from the U.N. General Assembly:

1. Tobacco Industry’s Efforts to Rebrand as “Good Guys” Still Falling Flat

The tobacco companies are trying to rebrand themselves as the “good guys” because they are selling products that are “less harmful” than conventional cigarettes. But their efforts are falling flat as their well-funded public relations machine runs up against reality. As the week unfolded, international visitors saw widespread coverage of the U.S. epidemic of teen vaping, with more than 1,000 people sickened and at least 18 dead from vaping-related conditions—and this is giving impetus to countries to implement strict regulations on e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn products.

Health advocates shone a disinfecting spotlight on potential tobacco industry interference in U.N. meetings and organizations, cautioning delegations and organizers to be on the alert for approaches from the tobacco industry and its allies. Read Vital Strategies’ statement, submitted to the High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage on behalf of the tobacco industry watchdog group, STOP, of which we are a partner.

2. Innovative Health Care Financing Ideas Stay on the Sidelines

It’s the elephant in the room, maybe even the blue whale (the world’s largest mammal): Where will we get the money to pay for universal health coverage, while addressing an epidemic of noncommunicable diseases, new threats to health, and ancient but still virulent diseases such as tuberculosis?

Civil society pushed for an end to subsidies on fossil fuels and other unhealthy commodities like tobacco, soda and alcohol, but largely these did not receive commitment from governments. Vital Strategies and the NCD Alliance co-authored a new report,  “Fueling an Unhealthy Future: How Propping Up Unhealthy Industries Will Sicken Millions and Cost Trillions,” which illustrates the health costs attributable to fossil fuels at the country and global levels.  

José Luis Castro, President and CEO of Vital Strategies with Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization at our Vital Talks event: “Putting Money to Work to Prevent NCDs.”

3. New Urgency on Climate but Little Action from the Biggest Polluters

The Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23 followed a weekend of environmental protests in more than 150 countries. Climate activists demanded a swift transition to clean energy and an end to fossil fuel use. While more than 4 million people participated in the demonstrations to pressure governments to act on climate change, it became apparent early on that the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world—China, the United States and India—were offering few insights into how they would curb their own emissions. Read a Q&A with Daniel Kass, our Senior Vice President of Environmental Health, about the health impacts of climate change.

Dan Kass, Head of our Environmental Health Division, discusses the urgent need for commitment and action ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit on September 23, 2019.

4. Momentum for Universal Health Coverage Grows with U.N. Declaration

The declaration from U.N. member states committing to universal health coverage for all felt historic, similar to when the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted in 2015. It’s a worthy goal. For too long, in too many countries, getting sick has meant destitution. For advocates, the declaration can be a lever for accelerating progress in countries that need it. But it lacks teeth. While many agree primary care and prevention should be the focus, there is no road map for how to move forward. And time dulls good intentions: Member states won’t be meeting about this again until 2023.

From left: Dr. Tom Frieden, President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, Dr. Olugbenga Ogedegbe, Professor of Population Health and Medicine at New York University, and Philippines Undersecretary of Health Dr. Myrna Cabotaje at Vital Strategies’ Resolve to Save Lives initiative hosted event focused on how hypertension control programs are essential to accelerating universal health coverage.

5. Health Data is Getting its Day in the Sun…

Just a few days after the U.N. General Assembly, a widely shared AP story about verbal autopsies highlighted the transformative impact that good mortality data can have on both communities and public health policies, and highlighted Bloomberg Philanthropies’ USD $120 million reinvestment in the Data for Health initiative, an effort by Bloomberg Philanthropies and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to improve health data in 25 countries.

6. …While Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights Are Pushed Back into the Shadows

As a result of intense negotiations in the days before the universal health coverage declaration was adopted, much of the strongest language protecting sexual and reproductive health and rights was stripped from the final document. That’s a glaring omission, because when women have access to contraception, they can take more control of their lives, plan and space their births, and improve the health, education and lives of the children they do have. It also allows women to contribute more to the workforce, reduces poverty and can even positively affect issues like deforestation that contribute to climate change.

Women remain sorely underrepresented among high level political leaders which left many wondering whether a lack of commitment here reflects the fact that so many of the speeches on the floor were from men.

7. Financing Common Goods for Health Wins as Best New Idea

With all the talk about unhealthy commodities and commercial determinants of health (think cigarettes, soda and alcohol), here is an idea presented at the U.N. General Assembly that we can get behind: the notion of common goods for health and the need to fund them. These are defined as population-based functions or interventions that require collective financing, either from government or donors, contribute to health and economic progress, and have a clear economic rationale.

By definition, common goods for health must generate large societal health benefits that cannot be achieved through market forces alone. For example:

• Taxes on products that harm health

• Environmental regulations and guidelines

• Health surveillance systems

• Solid waste management and sanitation systems

8. Missing in Action: Ending the Global Shortfall of Health Workers

Across the more than 600 side events and on the main floor, we saw too little attention paid to ensuring that trained and supported health workers are in place to deliver care. According to a 2016 WHO report, an additional 18 million health workers will be needed in order to meet universal health coverage commitments. This shortfall is a significant problem around the world, both in countries with aging populations and those with young, growing populations, and deserves to be addressed more robustly on the global stage.