UN Briefing: Governments have an ethical responsibility to address non-communicable diseases

Ahead of the UN High-level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases in New York next week, the Council has produced a briefing paper outlining why heads of state not only need to take the lead in tackling diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, but that they have an ethical responsibility to do so.

In its report Public health: ethical issues, the Council set out how the state has an ethical duty to act as ‘steward’, providing conditions that enable people to live healthy lives and reducing health inequalities. It also proposed an ‘intervention ladder’ as a way of thinking about the acceptability and justification of different public health policies. The link between obesity, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption and NCDs is clearer than ever and the report makes a number of specific recommendations in these areas, including:

  • The food industry has an ethical responsibility to help individuals to live healthy lives. It should review the composition of the food it manufactures and the way it is marketed and sold. Where this responsibility is not upheld, for instance in failing to provide universal, readily understandable front-of-pack nutrition labelling, regulation by the state is ethically justifiable.
  • Evidence-based measures judged effective to reduce alcohol consumption should be implemented by states. Such measures include coercive strategies regarding price, marketing and availability. For example, taxes on alcoholic beverages could be increased.
  • The harm to others caused by smoking tobacco justifies the implementation of coercive measures. Therefore, the prohibition of smoking in enclosed public spaces is justified.
  • Policies on selling and advertising tobacco and alcohol that afford the greatest protection to consumers should be adopted worldwide. One example would be worldwide adherence to standards in advertising that have been developed and agreed by industry in the European Union.

Download the briefing paper on public health and non-communicable diseases [PDF 220KB]

Find out more about the Council’s work on public health

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