José Luis Castro highlights the urgent need to address non-communicable disease in Cuba and the world

On 16 November José Luis Castro, The Union’s Executive Director, spoke at the 7th National Congress of Hygiene and Epidemiology in Cuba to deliver a keynote address on preventing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Cuba and the world. While lauding the country’s health system, he called on Cuba to do more to combat its significant burden of non-communicable diseases.

José Luis Castro opened by emphasising Cuba’s strong health system, having universal health coverage since 1976. However, he challenged Cuba to do even more by paying closer attention to preventable NCDs, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and chronic respiratory illness.

Despite the strong health system in Cuba, nearly 86 percent of deaths are due to NCDs. He said, “We can and must take action to change this”, and went on to look at what health obstacles Cuba faces, explaining that addressing these is the best way to deliver the right solutions to these specific problems.

The most important risk for NCDs is tobacco. Each year, almost 20,000 Cubans die from lung cancer and other tobacco-related disease. José Luis Castro stressed that implementing the comprehensive tobacco control guidelines laid out in the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) would reduce illness and death.

Cuba has already taken steps implementing strong national smoke-free legislation, which protects more people in Cuba from tobacco. Commending the fact that Cuba already meets the Framework Convention’s recommendation on tobacco taxes, José Luis Castro proposed the next step would be to raise the prices on tobacco products. A 10 percent increase in the price of tobacco products can reduce consumption by five percent.

He said, “I can’t emphasise enough how important the FCTC’s tobacco control guidelines are for the reduction of NCDs. The FCTC’s policies are proven to work. I call upon the government here in Cuba and all governments to apply these best practices.”

Like the tobacco industry, the alcohol, sugar-sweetened beverage and processed food industries practice aggressive marketing and promotion. Nearly half of all Cubans are overweight or obese. Many citizens rely on inexpensive, processed foods, while fresh, healthy foods have been scarce and expensive for decades. He stressed that taxes on alcohol and sugar-sweetened beverages would reduce consumption and encourage healthy alternatives.

“Globally, we know that the most effective ways to reduce NCDs are through policy change and increased public education that changes attitudes” he said, “and Cuba has good policies in place and the potential to make considerable progress in reducing NCDs.”

In Cuba 75 percent of its population live in urban areas. He addressed the great need to focus on indoor and outdoor air quality due to the health harms that result from pollution. He spoke about the recent unprecedented air pollution emergency in Delhi as a harbinger of what is to come around the world, if we do not take appropriate steps to ensure clean air.

In closing, José Luis Castro was optimistic about the potential for Cuba to “be a leading example to the rest of the world in reducing NCDs”.