13 June 2024

WHO blamed four industries for 2.7 million deaths a year in the European region

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has released a report, Commercial Determinants of Noncommunicable Diseases in the WHO European Region, and outlined its key messages in a press release. According to the organisation, four industrial products - tobacco, processed food, fossil fuels and alcohol - are responsible for 2.7 million deaths in the region each year.

Non-communicable diseases - such as heart and vascular disease, cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and others - are responsible for the vast majority of deaths in the world. Modifiable risk factors play a leading role in the development of these diseases. Some of them (for example, the level of physical activity) depend only on the individual, while others are largely due to the legislative regulation of certain industries and their products. Among the latter, environmental pollution and the per capita consumption of tobacco, alcohol and ultra-processed foodstuffs stand out. One of the WHO's global sustainable development goals is to reduce premature mortality from non-communicable diseases by one-third by 2030, but delays in adopting regulatory initiatives are jeopardising this goal.

According to a new WHO report, non-communicable diseases are responsible for 90 per cent of deaths and 85 per cent of years lived with disability in the organisation's European region (which includes Central Asian countries). Cardiovascular diseases and cancer account for 51.4 and 46.4 per cent of deaths, respectively. 61.3 per cent of deaths from non-communicable diseases can be directly attributed to risk factors and thus prevented by minimising their impact.

By commercial determinants of health, WHO means any activity of industry that affects human health, directly or indirectly, positively or negatively. Such activities are diverse, examples include supply chain organisations, working conditions, product design and packaging, advertising, research costs, lobbying, consumer preference formation and many others. According to the organisation's experts, the negative impact of the commercial sector on public health is weighty, increases over time and often goes unnoticed.

In particular, the report says, four industries - tobacco, processed foods, fossil fuels and alcohol - are directly responsible for 2.7 million deaths per year (that is, more than 7,400 deaths per day) in the European region, accounting for 24.5 per cent of all deaths there. This figure is likely to be underestimated because it does not include indirect effects - for example, increased rates of metabolic disorders or alcohol-related violent deaths. Tobacco products account for the largest number of deaths at 10.37 per cent, followed by fossil fuels, alcohol and ultra-processed foods at 5.21; 3.84 and 3.82 per cent respectively. Manufacturing risks also contribute significantly with 1.57 per cent.

Meanwhile, the impact of industry is seen as one of the major obstacles to achieving health goals in the European region. For example, it is home to five of the largest producers of alcohol, with an estimated annual market of €200 billion, a fifth of the global market. Tobacco products bring in €256 billion and this market is estimated to be growing at 2.6 per cent a year.

As measures to combat negative commercial influences at all levels, WHO recommends impacting the following areas: marketing of unhealthy products; monopolistic practices; transparency, lobbying, funding and conflicts of interest; taxation of multinational corporations; job security and working conditions; exploitation of vulnerable groups during crises; and funding and support for civil society organisations to ensure their independence.

"Today we are presenting undeniable evidence of harmful commercial practices and products and saying that people must always come first, not profits," concluded Hans Kluge, Director of the WHO Regional Office for Europe.

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