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Private Sector Serious About Tackling NCDs Despite Concerns of Civil Society

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Some academics and non-profit organizations are skeptical of the motives of the increasing number of multinational companies who seek partnerships to address non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Their suspicions are varied: Some think corporations are doing it mainly to improve their reputation. Others believe they have a hidden agenda to stifle reforms or delay progress. Statements dismissive of the value of collaboration dominate the discourse on private-public partnerships. So how well is the private sector doing in tackling the rising pandemic of NCDs, which cause nearly two out of every three deaths in the world (80 percent of those in developing countries), the four main ones being cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes? It's been a year since the United National High-Level Meeting on NCDs, only the second high-level meeting to address a health issue. Public sector actions, led by the World Health Organization (WHO), include drafting objectives and targets, developing planning documents, hosting meetings and seminars to review NCD trends, and best buys. These actions will pay off in time. However, little of this activity has yet to be translated into substantive programs at the community level. We in the private sector agree that a multidisciplinary approach is needed to tackle NCDs. The private sector is a major stakeholder in many ways -- as employers; makers of food and medicines, sports gear and technology; as corporate citizens and consumers -- and wants to be engaged in the global NCD dialogue. We deserve a seat at the table. In the last 12 months, several initiatives aimed at improving access to diagnostics and treatments and reforming product formulation were announced by pharmaceutical, medical device and food and beverage companies. Here are a few examples:
  • Johnson & Johnson is supporting "QuitNowTXT," a text-based smoking cessation platform outside of the United States, in a partnership led by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
  • Medtronic has launched the Global NCD Initiative, to support advocacy, stronger health systems and innovation in addressing NCDs.
  • PepsiCo will host fora to share best practices and consumer insights on salt reduction with small- and medium-sized food companies in developing countries starting in South Africa, and has sponsored a report.
When I was leading work on diet and physical activity at WHO a decade ago, several investors, including JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley, issued reports on the risks to food companies that did not address the growing tide of obesity. Now, in a major report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch entitled "Globesity: The Global Fight against Obesity," Bank of America has identified investment opportunities in 50 companies that will increasingly address obesity over the next 25 years. I believe that these companies' strategy and intent cannot be questioned. We understand salt, sugar and fat consumption must be reduced, but the timing required to transform food products to reduced-salt versions, healthier oils and a wider range of fruits and vegetables is dependent not just on companies' timetables or capabilities, but on factors beyond their reach, such as:
  • Food subsidies benefit mostly a narrow range of commodities making more nutritious foods relatively more expensive for food companies and consumers.
  • Consumer knowledge about salt and calories remains stunningly weak, limiting their demand for healthier products.
  • Research and development investments by large public agencies favor treatment (medicine and surgery) over prevention (diet and physical activity) as solutions to obesity.
All of these issues are best addressed through collaboration between the private and public sectors. That is how we have made progress not only with HIV/AIDS and vaccines, but with other social issues as well. As the one-year mark since the U.N. High-Level Meeting on NCDs approaches, there is a critical need for more private-public engagement in which the strengths of individual parties can be fully leveraged. If this happens, the likelihood of success is much greater than if each actor goes it alone.

Derek Yach is senior vice president of Global Health and Agriculture Policy at PepsiCo and former head of NCDs at WHO. This is one of a series of opinion articles published to mark the first anniversary of the 2011 United Nations High-Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases on Sept. 19. The series is coordinated by the non-profit organization Arogya World in partnership with the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network and will be housed at www.arogyaworld.org

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