U.N. health agency seeks higher tobacco, alcohol taxes

In a new report released on the sidelines of a high-level U.N. meeting on noncommunicable diseases in New York, the World Health Organization outlines low-cost strategies to combat chronic diseases that are expensive to treat and bring severe economic consequences.

The World Health Organization says it does not need to cost a lot of money to save millions of people from a wide range of noncommunicable ailments, cancer, diabetes and heart and respiratory disease. As little as a dollar a year per person in low income countries, and a $1.50 in middle income countries.

Current treatments of chronic diseases are expensive and push millions of people into poverty each year.

“We have cost effective interventions that can make a huge difference in reducing the burden if they are implemented by the member states and most of these are actually low cost interventions. They are affordable by all countries irrespective of income and economic status,” said Ala Alwan, an assistant director general with the World Health Organization.

The World Economic Forum estimates that over the next 15 years, noncommunicable diseases will cost low and middle income countries more than $7 trillion.

Margaret Chan, World Health director general, urged leaders gathered at the United Nations to act quickly and decisively. “Rising financial and economic cost of these diseases will reach levels that are beyond the coping capacity of wealthiest nations of the world. Excellencies, you have the power to stop or reverse the . . . disaster,” she said.

Several types of common behavior are well known to increase the risk of chronic diseases, tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use.

The health organization simply recommends changing such habits with what it calls population-based and individual-based best buy interventions.

“If you increase taxation on tobacco and alcohol you will generate funds. You will not only reduce consumption and prevent noncommunicable diseases but you will be able to generate additional funds even in low income countries. And that you can use to expand coverage at primary health care level to provide better health care or to strengthen your health promotion programs,” Alwan said.

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