Lifestyle and demographic changes have led to huge increases in the common risk factors for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs): high blood pressure, tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, high blood cholesterol, overweight, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity.

The NCD epidemic affects all countries, but places a heavier burden on those with low and middle incomes, as their health systems have fewer resources for prevention, early detection and comprehensive health care. Inequalities and the social determinants of health (such as gender) play a role in NCDs. The most disadvantaged groups in society are at greater risk, because they have not only less access to health services but also fewer resources (in terms of education, employment, housing, participation in civic society and control over life) to help them make healthy lifestyle choices.

WHO/Europe promotes a comprehensive approach to tackling NCDs that:

  • promotes population-level health promotion and disease prevention programmes, actively targets groups and individuals at high risk and maximizes population coverage of effective treatment and care; and
  • systematically integrates policy and action to reduce inequalities in health.

This approach requires integrated action on health determinants and risk factors across sectors, combined with strengthening health systems to improve prevention and control of NCDs.

In 2006, the WHO Regional Committee for Europe adopted the European Strategy for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable diseases, establishing a framework for action.