Reflections on the 8th Global Conference on Health Promotion, Helsinki – Part one

Organizing committee members from the WHO and Finland

Organizing committee members from the WHO and Finland

After an inspiring week more than 900 delegates from all around the world left Helsinki  with greater enthusiasm and renewed hopes about health promotion. The 8th Global Conference on Health Promotion (8GCHP) was held in Helsinki from 10 to 14 June 2013. I had the opportunity to attend this conference with other delegates representing the UN, governments, academia and civil society organisations.

This conference was the latest in the WHO Global conference series which began in 1986 when the Ottawa Charter on Health Promotion was produced. At the opening ceremony a video was screened to show the health promotion journey from Ottawa to Helsinki.

Highlight of the conference

Undoubtedly the WHO Director General Dr Margaret Chan’s speech at the opening ceremony was the highlight of the conference,   It received a great response from the audience and also on social media. She said that “efforts to prevent noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) go against the business interests of powerful economic operators. It is not just Big Tobacco anymore. Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda, and Big Alcohol. All of these industries fear regulation, and protect themselves by using the same tactics.” This set the perfect tone to a much debated and action oriented discussion during the week. Most of the delegates mentioned they didn’t expect to hear such a statement from a WHO DG during their careers and welcomed the leadership she demonstrated.

Working with different sectors

The conference theme was Health in All Policies; (HiAP) and there were several plenaries looking at how to work with  “friendly” and sometimes “ not so friendly” sectors to promote health. Enis Baris from the World Bank presented the bank’s strategy towards HiAP.  The audience’s response was mixed.  Few suggested that World Bank policies had pushed some countries into poverty worsening their health outcomes. Baris answered saying that they have learnt from those mistakes and now the Bank has a greater commitment to promote health. The World Bank Health responded to my question posted on Twitter saying that  approximately 14% of World Bank projects now measure health as an outcome. This may be a good start, but clearly it shows that there is much more work to be done within and between UN organisations to promote the HiAP approach.

Some participants wanted clear guidelines on how to deal with  private sector involvement after the WHO Director General’s  opening remarks. They questioned whether, if companies are required by law to maximise their profits for shareholders, we should expect them to collaborate for health promotion? There was no clear consensus about this and few delegates highlighted the need to work with the private sector to address certain issues.

Health promotion tools

The conference offered a wide range of parallel sessions and I tried to follow the theme of NCD prevention and health promotion throughout the week. Law and NCD preventions session from Professor Amandine Garde demonstrated that legal instruments have an important role in health promotion and the question is not whether to use them, but how to use them appropriately.  She stated that we should also talk about the constraints of law in the NCD prevention debate.

Franco Sassi (OECD) gave us an excellent summary of the research needed to understand the debate on fiscal measures in health promotion. He concluded that there is a strong case for the use of taxation to promote health. The argument is strong for tobacco products and alcoholic beverages, but less clear for foods. Out of all foods, sugar sweetened beverages are the most  likely to be the subject of taxes. Sinne Smed’s presentation shared some preliminary data on on Denmarks’s experience with a saturated fat tax .  This suggested there had been a decrease in fat and oil consumption at least in the short term. She concluded that if it was to be re considered it should come as a Joint European Initiative to tackle cross boarder trading.

NCDs in the health promotion agenda

Most of the plenaries and parallel sessions addressed different NCD prevention strategies. I noticed that several plenary speakers stated that “health promotion is not only NCD prevention”. This is a very interesting development. A few years ago the NCD community complained that NCDs didn’t get a fair share in the global health agenda compared to the disease burden and highlighted the need for bringing NCDs higher up in the agenda. I felt that it has reached a very satisfactory level in the global health promotion priority list and now we need to focus our energy to translate these discussions, strategies and frameworks in to actions in countries.

A plenary session in the Finlandia Hall

A plenary session in the Finlandia Hall

Take home message

Dr Oleg Chestnov, Assistant Director General, WHO said in his closing remarks “We will not wait. We will drive the change. We are seeing the birth of a social movement here in Helsinki.”A clear task was given to delegates to go back home and spread the message about this exciting event to drive health promotion forward.

I personally found it to be a very exciting event due to the interesting topics we discussed and also due to the dedicated dynamic group of global citizens who are committed to promote health. Congratulations to organisers and participants on a well organised and very successful conference which connected with a new  generation to take the health promotion agenda forward.

Next week I will blog about the key role played by emerging young leaders at the conference and the influence of Twitter.

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Kremlin joined the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research group at Oxford University’s Department of Public Health in 2009 – where he works on the epidemiology of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and associated risk factors. He is the course director of the Short course on prevention strategies for NCDs. Kremlin is currently doing a DPhil alongside his work as a researcher, quantifying the outcome of health policies addressing sustainable healthy diets. Kremlin graduated in 2006 with an MBBS from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He completed his Masters in Global Health Science in 2009 from the University of Oxford and completed his internship at the World Health Organization Head Quarters in Geneva on the Social Determinants of Health project.

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