‘Nice to finally meet you in 3D’ – in-person meetings are back

Maggie Wetzel at WHA75 in Geneva

In this blog, WCRF International Policy and Public Affairs Manager Maggie Wetzel talks about her first time at an in-person World Health Assembly.

Participation in this year’s 75th session of the World Health Assembly (WHA75) was in-person for the first time since 2020. Like many who started new jobs during the pandemic, I have been faced with the challenge of only being able to get to know fellow advocates virtually over the past couple of years.

As a welcome pause from two-dimensional virtual meetings, Geneva’s Palais des Nations opened up for WHA75 for non-state actor participants and country delegations: an opportunity to dig out the heels and shake two years’ worth of hands.

Palais des Nations
Geneva’s Palais des Nations

The chance to finally meet fellow advocates, our WHO partners and government health officials was only partly the reason for the electric atmosphere at WHA75. For non-communicable diseases (NCDs), WHA75 was one of the biggest ever – and NCD advocates were in the eye of the storm. Delegates made a record number of decisions on NCDs: from obesity, alcohol and oral health, to action on NCDs in humanitarian emergencies.

I helped to make WCRF International’s voice heard by engaging in discussions with delegates on the marketing of unhealthy food to children; alcohol policy and physical activity. On behalf of WCRF, I delivered 4 statements to the Assembly. On breastfeeding, we urged member states “to take strong action to address commercial determinants of maternal and infant health” to protect breastfeeding as a way of reducing the risk of both breast cancer and child obesity.

New ways to prevent and manage obesity

Putting healthy diets at the heart of the week’s health discussions was a definite highlight. At the Global Obesity Coalition’s breakfast we had the opportunity to workshop how to overcome key barriers to success in obesity policy, and the value of face-to-face discussions was incalculable.

Addressing commercial determinants of health remains one of our key asks, and it was encouraging to see multi-stakeholder engagement on the issue of conflict of interest that morning: from Mexican Health Ministry officials to NCD Child Young Leaders.

To halt the rise of obesity in children under 5 years, adolescents and adults by 2025 – and to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030 – WHA75 approved an Acceleration Plan to support countries to implement recommendations to prevent and manage obesity over the life course, and a set of related targets.

These are essential first steps towards more comprehensive and coherent action on obesity, which is an important risk factor for 13 different cancers and other NCDs.

Hannah Brinsden, Director of Policy at World Obesity Federation, said: “The adoption of the new recommendations on obesity is hugely significant … and it’s great to see WHO supporting this through the Acceleration Plan to try and halt the rise in obesity in select front-runner countries.

“Our efforts must now turn to developing strong accountability mechanisms and implementation support in all countries to ensure no one is left behind.”

Adopting WHO’s Global Alcohol Action Plan

WHA75 was a historic week, and even more so for alcohol policy. The Assembly adopted the WHO Global Alcohol Action Plan unanimously and in doing so endorsed a comprehensive plan with ambitious targets to accelerate action on alcohol as a public health priority.

For this new chapter in alcohol policy advocacy, Kristina Sperkova, President of MOVENDI International, reflected that “the infrastructure provided by the Action Plan drives momentum for the implementation of alcohol policies, collaboration, and to build a global initiative specifically for alcohol taxation – the single most cost-effective alcohol policy solution.”

During a fascinating WHA75 side event ‘Towards ambitious alcohol policy’ we heard member states’ views on how the implementation of the Action Plan will provide opportunities, but also challenges, to save lives and improve health.

WCRF’s voice resounded loudly as I addressed the Assembly stating “there is no safe level of alcohol for cancer risk” and demonstrating our full support for the Action Plan.

We remain concerned about the role of the alcohol industry in the Action Plan, and the flawed concept of “harmful use of alcohol” – at WHA75 we delivered a statement calling for alcohol policy development to be protected from industry interference, and adequate resourcing for its implementation, particularly in low- and middle-income countries to address global inequities.

What’s next for NCDs?

WHA75 decisions come ahead of the 4th United Nations General Assembly high-level meeting on the prevention and control NCDs to be held in 2025.

Premature deaths caused by NCDs can be prevented when countries take legislative and regulatory action: every dollar invested in NCD Best Buy actions will yield a return of at least 7 dollars by 2030. Best Buy actions include increasing health taxes and restrictions on the marketing and sales of harmful products.

These policy actions were discussed at the WHA75 side event (watch a recording of the event here) co-hosted by the NCD Alliance, World Obesity Federation, NCD Child and Vital Strategies – an event that not only drew attention to reducing unhealthy diets and NCDs, but also the need to bridge the investment gap.

NCD Alliance’s Policy and Advocacy Director, Alison Cox, said: “Far too little progress has been made in mobilising the resources necessary to deliver on global NCD commitments. More than 7 out of 10 deaths globally are from NCDs, yet NCD prevention and control remains the weakest link in primary healthcare and universal health coverage.”

We look forward to prioritising the urgent need for increased financing dedicated at both preventing NCDs including cancer, and building resilient health systems that leave no one behind.