The high-level UN meeting reminds us all of our role in the spread of NCDs, says Tim Lang

While world media focused on the dreadful toll of 9/11 deaths, preparations concluded for another New York event about an even bigger but more routine death count.

This week, the UN hosts a high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases (NCDs). It lacks 9/11 publicity levels, but deserves better. While 9/11 was 3,000 deaths in one horrific event, NCDs kill tens of millions every year, but this is viewed as normal.

The political acceptance of these deaths as routine is deeply shocking. In 2008, according to the World Health Organisation’s background report, NCDs accounted for 36 million of the total 57 million deaths that occurred globally 63% of all deaths worldwide. Their causes were cardiovascular (17 million a year), cancer (7.6 million), respiratory (4.2 million) and diabetes (1.3 million). No longer ‘rich’ Western diseases, about 80% of the deaths in 2008 were in low and middle income countries. Put crudely, our food systems and ways of eating are spreading.

Retailers need to wake up about this, since they themselves contribute to common risk factors by selling tobacco, alcohol and fast food and encouraging a lack of exercise. Hold on, you say, we’re not to blame for lack of physical activity NCD causes are complex.

But what about out-of-town stores requiring car use? What about supermarkets destroying town centres (not to say jobs)? We’re not to blame for poor diets or consumer demand, you say. But who isn’t involved? The issue is with a way of life, a culture, an approach to consumer choice and a belief in our ‘right’ to consume or sell and let others pay the consequences.

WHO is an advisory body with little political leverage. Solutions it moots meet fierce resistance from anti-health interest lobbies. They include smoking restrictions; action on alcohol, adverts and prices; reduced salt in processed foods; polyunsaturated fat replacing trans-fats; public awareness about diet and physical activity; restrictions on marketing of foods and soft drinks; food taxes to favour healthy diets; healthy environments in schools and daily life.

Such measures seem reasonable to me, but not to some.

Remembering the 9/11 legacy, the UN meeting is a chance to imagine a better 21st century. Victorians didn’t baulk when they realised their public health crisis. What’s stopping us?