The term "noncommunicable disease" (NCD) is not generally well known outside the realm of public health, but the major diseases that it refers to -- cancers, diabetes, heart diseases and lung diseases -- are familiar to many. NCDs -- illnesses that are not passed from person to person -- are the leading cause of death worldwide, killing approximately 41 million people each year.
Many people have personal experience with NCDs, either directly or indirectly. Across five economically and culturally diverse countries -- Colombia, India, Jordan, Tanzania and the United States -- an average of 66% of adults said they have had or know a friend or family member who has had an NCD. In the United States, this figure is 90%.
These findings come from a new international survey of people's perceptions of NCDs and their risk factors, which was conducted in late 2021 and early 2022 by Gallup in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the World Health Organization (WHO). The respondent-level data are now available for independent research.
Though most see cancer as "very harmful," many underestimate the harmfulness of other NCDs.
Noncommunicable diseases are extremely harmful without prevention and management services. With the right policies and programs, roughly 86% of cardiovascular disease and 44% of cancer deaths could be prevented or delayed.
Overall perceptions of how harmful the five major types of NCDs are vary considerably, both by disease and by country. Cancer is viewed as the most harmful of the five conditions, with an average of 83% of adults across the five countries rating this disease as "very harmful."
Slightly fewer see heart disease or having a stroke as "very harmful," with an average of 72% describing these conditions this way -- although both heart disease and stroke outrank cancer in terms of the leading causes of death globally.
Still fewer -- 59% on average -- see diabetes as "very harmful." Diabetes is the ninth-leading cause of death worldwide, and in some of the countries included in this study, it ranks even higher. In Jordan, for instance, diabetes is the third-leading cause of death. However, just over a third of Jordanians (36%) say diabetes is "very harmful" -- the lowest level across the five countries.
Deaths from diabetes have increased by 70% globally between 2000 and 2019. More than 95% of diabetes cases globally are Type 2 diabetes, which could be prevented with the right interventions to maintain a healthy weight and increase physical activity.
Lung diseases kill more than 4 million people every year but can often be avoided by eliminating major risks such as tobacco. An average of 51% of adults consider "lung diseases, like asthma" as "very harmful." However, in only Colombia (66%) and India (62%) do a majority say lung diseases are very harmful. By contrast, slightly less than half of people in Tanzania (49%) characterize lung diseases this way; this figure is smaller still in the U.S. (44%) and Jordan (36%).
Public strongly backs policy measures that can help fight NCDs.
In terms of different policy measures that could be implemented to combat NCDs, there is broad support across the five countries for all nine specific policies tested in the survey.
- People are largely supportive of instituting taxes for better health outcomes. Higher taxes on alcohol and tobacco products receive similar levels of support (simple five-country averages of 69% and 66%, respectively), while 59% support higher taxes on high-sugar drinks.
- Policy or regulatory measures that legally restrict or prevent harmful activities also receive substantial support -- including laws that restrict actions such as smoking in public (simple five-country average of 69%), laws that would ban advertising of harmful high-sugar foods and drinks to children (72%) and, for unhealthy foods, either ban the advertisement or promotion of the product or require processed fats to be removed from these types of foods (72%).
- Three policies that focus on empowering the public through such measures as creating healthy spaces like public parks, raising awareness via media campaigns and increasing access to health services all receive nearly universal support.
Many deaths from NCDs are preventable, if communities and policymakers implement the right policies and strategies. For this to happen, though, there needs to be more effective communication and outreach on NCDs, including a dialogue that connects with people's own experiences with this topic, rather than a general high-level campaign. These policies are also recommended by the World Health Organization as proven cost-effective measures to improve health.
Crucially, there is broad support for policy measures that can help combat NCDs at the national level -- even for policies that usually stir up controversy or outright opposition from some quarters, such as taxes. The results show that people do support government actions -- even difficult ones -- that will ultimately boost the overall health of the population, especially given how many people have said they have been directly or indirectly affected by an NCD.
Better communication about the individual noncommunicable diseases and their risk factors is a vital part of the effort to reduce the incidence of these diseases.