Death by chocolate: Global political economies of tobacco, alcohol, and junk food

16th December 2020

According to recent studies, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are responsible for 60% of premature deaths in Europe, with cancer and heart attacks the leading causes. One of the explanations for increasing NCD occurrences is the environment we live in. NCDs are more prevalent in high income countries, although deaths attributable to NCDs are rising in Africa and Asia, and not only because causes are falling (e.g., infection, under-nutrition).

Amongst manageable risk factors associated with NCDs (i.e., tobacco, diet including malnutrition [imbalance or insufficiency of nutrients, not necessarily energy], alcohol, unsafe sex, low physical activity, and drug abuse), poor diet a significant problem. According to Luke Allen (Research Associate, University of Oxford & WHO Consultant), there are three important vectors driving the impact of diet on NCDs, namely availability, affordability, and acceptability.

WHO recommendations to tackle NCD are:

  • Tobacco: increase taxes and prices; ban tobacco advertising, promotions, and sponsorship; warn smokers about the harms of smoking; provide tobacco cessation programmes.
  • Alcohol: increase excise taxes; ban or restrict alcohol advertising; provide psychosocial intervention for those with hazardous and harmful alcohol use.
  • Healthy diet: reduce salt intake; ban trans-fats; increase taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.

The most popular measures adopted by developed countries remain clinical guidelines, national NCDs targets and action plans, cardiovascular therapies, obesity policies, and tobacco taxes, some of which are more successful than others. The event concluded with a discussion about who is responsible for health, individuals or governments, and to what extent public health advice (e.g., eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day) is useful when we live in an obesogenic environment with many NDC risk factors outside of citizens’ control.

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