September 23rd, 2011

Many healthy returns: a role for business in reducing lifestyle disease

The Guardian - The Sustainable Business Blog

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 its brand 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.

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