Eat, drink and be sedentary: unhealthy living a law unto itself

10 July 2014

Professor Lawrence O. Gostin of Georgetown University has advised the World Health Organisation (WHO) and its member states about tackling non-communicable diseases (NCDs) through public health law and next week he will speak at the University of Sydney about how governments can meet the challenge.

The world is facing a pandemic on NCDs, such as cancer and diabetes, with the worldwide economic cost of unhealthy workforces and surging healthcare expenditures projected to hit $50 trillion cumulatively by 2030. In Australia, smoking, poor diet, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are the leading preventable causes of death and disability.

Professor Gostin has partnered with Professor Roger Magnusson, an expert in health law and governance at the Sydney Law School, on a project to devise evidence-informed legal strategies for addressing these lifestyle risk factors to prevent cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

"The prevailing global health challenge is the transition from infectious to non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and respiratory diseases. These are caused by the globalization of unhealthy lifestyles driven by the agriculture, food, alcohol, and tobacco industries," said Professor Gostin.

"Obesity and its related suffering and early death, especially among young people, is a crisis in Australia and globally, and especially burdens the Pacific Region. In Australia itself, obesity and early death from NCDs is evident in the largest inequalities between aboriginal and other populations anywhere in the world," he said.

According to Professor Magnusson, legislators need to shift their focus from the communicable diseases that posed a great challenge in the past century, to the NCDs of the present, and the mounting demand they are putting on health systems.

"Regulation plays a critical role in creating food and physical activity environments that support healthier lifestyles, and give everyone a chance for a longer and healthier life. One benefit of looking to the United States is that at federal, state and city level, the US is a vast laboratory for new and innovative approaches to regulation," Professor Magnusson said.

While Australia has been a world leader in tobacco control, particularly through its plain packaging legislation, it has "faltered badly" on alcohol prevention and control and on Indigenous health, Professor Gostin said.

"The global funding and response to NCDs is paltry, short-sighted and wholly disproportionate to the suffering, early death, and economic costs of the NCD pandemic. This calls for major reforms of global health priorities and global governance," he added.

Professor Gostin is the Director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre on Public Health Law and Human Rights and the O'Neill Institute on National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. In this capacity, he has advised WHO and their member states on topics, such as AIDS, TB and malaria, NCDs, and most notably pandemic influenza, SARS, and the new MERS virus along with Ebola. His new book is Global Health Law.

Event details

What:Latest developments in global health masterclass
Where: Law School Foyer, Level 2, Sydney Law School, Eastern Avenue, The University of Sydney (Camperdown Campus).
When: Thursday, 17 July, 6pm to 7.45pm
Cost: Full Fee $15

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