Food and Behaviour Research

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18 June 2014 - The Conversation - Lifestyle diseases make global health promotion more difficult than ever

Sarah Hawkes and Tom Pegram

Data from the 2010 Global Burden of Disease survey showed that all around the world populations are shifting away from infectious diseases towards non-communicable diseases


The 2010 Global Burden of Disease Survey and related content can be found on the Lancet website 

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) represent a wide range of conditions, among which the most common are heart disease, strokes, and lung diseases.

Among the top ten global risk factors for disease identified in the 2010 survey, at least half were associated with “consumer lifestyle” – tobacco smoking (ranked number two), alcohol use (number three), low consumption of fruit (number five), high body mass index and high plasma glucose (numbers six and seven, respectively). The number one slot was occupied by high blood pressure – with its multitude of drivers and causes.

While the WHO and its sister institutions had some success in regulating international health policy in an era characterised by infections and epidemics, can they succeed in promoting and protecting the health of the public where threats to health are now associated with exposure to the products of big business?

Transnational threats to health in the early 21st century arise predominantly from private sector companies selling tobacco, alcohol and manufactured foods and drinks (the consumption of highly processed foods typically high in salts, fats, sugar and additives may be displacing fresh foods among some populations.

Regulating these threats to health is no longer as (relatively) simple as thinking about how to monitor, control and treat infectious pathogens. Instead, the “guardians of global health” are now faced with the challenge of negotiating with interests whose very existence depends on the sale of products that can be actively harmful to human health.