By Darian Stibbe, Director, The Partnering Initiative.
This blog first appeared on The Guardian Sustainable Business blog – to read the article there please click here.
Delegates at a specially-convened UN Summit are hearing this week that incidence of chronic or “non-communicable” disease is rising dramatically throughout the world. With current trends, societies will be gravely damaged by the combination of a growing, ageing and chronically sick population, with a less productive workforce to support it. Only a concerted, “allsociety” approach that brings together government, business and civil society has any hope of tackling the underlying complexity of this threat.
According to the World Health Organisation, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, are the world’s biggest killers, causing an estimated 36 million deaths each year – 63% of all deaths globally.
Brazil, Russia, India and China together lose more than 20 million productive life-years annually to chronic diseases; the number is expected to grow 65% by 2030.In the US, the Milken Institute estimates that nearly half of Americans are sufferers, with $277bn (£179bn) spent on treatment and with a further impact worth $1.1 trillion on the economy through lost productivity. These are already staggering numbers, and they are set to rocket over the next 20 years. With the double whammy of lost economic activity and the cost of treatment, health systems around the world risk bankruptcy.
Despite the severity of the threat, chronic diseases are some of the most preventable. Sometimes known as “lifestyle diseases”, they are caused in the main by four factors: poor diets high in salt, sugar and fat and low in fruit and vegetables; physical inactivity; alcohol misuse; and smoking. What may once have been seen as a problem for individuals now threatens whole societies, and the threat is as great in developing as in developed countries.
Although personal responsibility must play a role, good intentions are easily overcome by a world which is more and more unsupportive of living healthily: high-fat, high-salt foods are an easier choice for reasons of taste, cost, accessibility and preparation time; urbanisation and a built environment militate against physical activity; social networking and video-games are taking over from sport-based leisure activities; and jobs are increasingly desk-based and stressful.
Clearly the root causes of unhealthy living are a complex array of social, economic, physical, biological and behavioural factors, most of which lie outside the usual role of health agencies. Pills cannot tackle the comparatively high cost of fresh vegetables. A traditional public information campaign won’t stop teenagers playing sedentary video games.
The only way to achieve the necessary fundamental shifts across society is to bring together the power and reach of all societal sectors: government – with its health, education, sports and planning mandates and its regulatory power; business – with its direct influence on employees, its potentially pro-health products and services, and itsbrand and marketing reach; civil society – from medical expertise non-governmental organisations to church groups and other community-based organisations with their community influence.
As outlined in the International Business Leaders Forum’s report published today, “Many healthy returns: The business of tackling Non-communicable Diseases”, for many companies, action against chronic disease provides a real business opportunity.
• Companies of all kinds can promote employee wellbeing through health screenings, support for stopping smoking or subsidised gym membership leading to increased overall employee productivity.
• With the support of tax breaks, supermarkets are opening up in so-called food deserts in New Orleans where residents have no easy access to fresh food.
• Through sponsorships and promotions, sports-related and beverage companies are simultaneously pushing physical activity and building their own brands.
• Health insurance companies are offering incentives and reducing premiums for policyholders who are regular gym users.
• And many food and beverage companies are seizing market opportunities by developing new, healthier products to feed a growing public appetite.
When it comes to food and beverage, many in the health community argue that such efforts are insufficient; they say that mandatory regulation is required to limit the salt, fat and sugar content of foods. Some food companies argue that their products are not intrinsically unhealthy if consumed in moderation as part of a healthy and active lifestyle, that it is not their role to tell people what they should or should not eat, and that they are providing what consumers demand.
What is clear is that these complex commercial, health and behavioural issues cannot be solved alone. However challenging it may be, the health community and business must work together – to combine research efforts to develop healthier substitutes, to educate the public and influence behaviour, to make healthy lifestyles the easy choice and, where necessary, to develop collectively the most appropriate and implementable voluntary or mandatory regulation that can level the playing field and remove market disincentives for businesses to act.
We are already seeing considerable strides being made by many companies, and there a number of examples of strong collaboration with the health community. However, the battle against chronic disease requires a major increase of such efforts on all sides. It is not a battle we can afford to lose.