September 19th, 2011

Conflicts of interest and the UN high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases

The Lancet

Many non-governmental organisations and professional groups are increasingly concerned by the current UN approach to engaging with private-sector and trade associations whose products and marketing contribute to the development of non-communicable diseases (NCD). The UN high-level meeting on NCDs (chiefly cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases) on Sept 19—20, 2011, will present an unprecedented opportunity to address this important but neglected global health issue.1 More than 140 public-interest organisations from around the world have signed up to the Conflict of Interest Declaration,2 which has been sent to the President of the General Assembly, and the co-convenors of the high-level meeting—the Ambassadors from Luxembourg and Jamaica.

Initiatives with the private sector, such as STOP TB and Roll Back Malaria, can be effective when the process is transparent and when the private-sector partners involved have few conflicts of interest. However, in the case of NCDs, there are clear conflicts for the corporations that contribute to and profit from the sales of alcoholic beverages; foods with high fat, salt, and sugar contents; and tobacco products—all of which are important causes of NCDs.3 These conflicts must be explicitly recognised and addressed, as acknowledged by WHO.4—6 Failure to do this will undermine the development of competent policy; the effectiveness and efficiency of programmes; and the confidence the global health community and the public at large have in the UN and WHO’s ability to govern and advance public health, which will severely impair capacity to help member states address NCDs.

We recommend the following actions to manage the issue of conflicts of interest for NCDs and to protect the integrity of the UN’s public-policy decision making on NCDs:

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