Fran Baum on the globalisation of unhealthy lifestyles

Fran BaumFran Baum is blogging from the 8th World Health Organization Global Health meeting. Read her other blogs here.

Sauli Ninistö, President of Finland, opened the conference stressing that health is important for achieving other goals, but also has value in its own right. He spoke of Finland’s huge improvements in health since the 1940s achieved through investing the fruits of economic development in social and health infrastructure.

Congratulations to Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, for her powerful opening speech saying corporate interests on health pose a daunting challenge for health. She noted health is shaped by the “globalisation of unhealthy lifestyles,” leading to an epidemic of NCDs which is blowing out health budgets—e.g. diabetes consumes 15% of health budgets. Previously, progress has meant diseases vanished, whereas now NCDs are flourishing along with urbanisation and economic growth.

Chan said public health has been used to fighting Big Tobacco, but now also have to fight “Big Alcohol,” “Big Food,” and “Big Soda.”  She cast industry involvement in policy making as dangerous and leading to distortions. She pointed to the many tactics industry uses to water down public health measures. These include: civil society “front groups;” promising that self-regulation will be effective; industry funded research, which confuses the evidence; positioning government action to promote health as curbs on individual liberty. Her speech defined the problem well. Solutions are needed now!

On the opening panel, Alireza Marandi talked of Iran’s success in designing an effective primary healthcare system, which included reform of medical education. The Secretary of the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Jaana Husu-Kallio, called for the “borders between professions” to be demolished in the interests of health and noted the need for a whole of government approach to food policy covering food security, production, safety, and nutrition. Tarja Halonen, former President of Finland, said education and health are “the tools of wellbeing.” There was much discussion about how the lessons from the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control can be applied to other areas and agreement that legal instruments should be more widely used to protect public health.

The afternoon’s panel on political will for Health in All Polocies (HiAP) disappointingly has gave few clues about how to create the will. The best suggestion was from Abdellatif Mekki, minister of health of Tunisia, who suggested that ministers of health should be vice presidents to give them more power, which they can then use against, for example, trade ministers who promote unhealthy industries like sugar.

I ended the day in a session on agriculture policy, food, and health. Bibi Giyose, from the African Union, reminded us that women make up more than 75% of food producers in Africa.  Priorities for nutritional sensitive agriculture are female empowerment, ensuring product diversity, and that processing sees food retaining its nutritional value. Yet we heard that global food chains dominate, rather than local food for local consumption, and that free trade agreements encourage unhealthy food supply. Fast food and supermarkets have increased massively. How do we change our food supply away from ultra processed food? Eating it seems to be killing people around the world!

Fran Baum is a professor of public health. She is the director of the Southgate Institute of Health Society and Equity, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia, and is a member of the Global Steering Committee, People’s Health Movement. She is an Australian Research Council Federation fellow.