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Androulla Vassiliou

Member of the European Commission, responsible for Health

Future challenges for EU health policies

Speech at Conference ''Delivering for Tomorrow's European Consumers''
Brussels, 29 October 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to address today this conference with so many participants from NGOs, Member States, the industry and other organisations.

I am also extremely happy to welcome here today young people from across the European Union. It is crucial that young people are involved in EU policy-making. Their involvement is a priority for me since the first day of my mandate in the Commission.

It is truly satisfying to see that on such an important topic for the future of the EU and their own future, young people make their voice heard and actively participate in the discussion. I would like to thank the European Youth Forum for its cooperation on this.

The timing of this conference is very appropriate. 2009 will be a year of changes and new priority setting at EU level. I am sure that in your discussions this morning you tackled the financial crisis we are witnessing and its implications for our citizens. There are many interconnected challenges ahead. They concern, among other things, public health, animal health and welfare and food safety policies. I would like to address some of these today.

Globalisation underpins today's challenges and opportunities. As the financial crisis demonstrates, we live today in an interconnected world. We can no longer ignore the global implications of our policies and have to work more closely with our global partners.

Health is a good example where closer cooperation is desirable. Think about the threat of a bioterrorist attack or the risk of an avian influenza pandemic or the threats to food safety, like the recent melamine-contamination of milk and milk products in China... All these issues clearly demonstrate that we increasingly need global solutions and global responses.

In this context, the EU has a fundamental role to play. It has to ensure that it has a strong and unique voice on the international scene. One way in which we are already doing this is by actively participating in international standard-setting organisations (such as the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) or the World Health Organisation). We will need to continue to be proactive in this area and keep encouraging third countries to adhere to our high level of safety standards, whether these concern food safety or health.

We need also to continue to lead by example on the international scene through our animal welfare policies, and we will continue to promote animal welfare standards through the OIE and in our trade agreements with third countries.

At the same time, we have to look at the changes that have come about in our societies. Increasing divides and inequalities have had, and still have, major repercussions for health. Tackling health inequalities, especially in a possible recession context, represents a great challenge for the Union, both at EU and national level.

Today, there is a gap of 18 years in healthy life years across the EU - from 70 years in Malta to 52 years in Estonia. At the same time, inequalities exist inside each EU country.

It is our duty at EU level to help Member States redress this situation. This can be achieved by designing policies that serve the interests of divided target groups with a focus on the most disadvantaged groups and by supporting Member States so that the situation improves faster.

On the other hand, while longevity is to be seen as a great achievement - by 2050 the number of people in the EU aged 65 and over will have grown by 70% - we must focus our efforts on making it healthier.

Therefore, initiatives to ensure healthy ageing – for instance, by fighting health threats, chronic diseases and accident prevention - will continue to be a long-term priority for the European Commission.

We also live at a time when non-communicable and preventable diseases are becoming more and more predominant and are having a huge impact on health systems and on the EU economy at large. These diseases are the result of unhealthy lifestyles. Simply put, we eat too much and not the right food, we do not do enough physical activity, we drink too much, we are under too much stress and we smoke.

We may already have entered into an era which some economists call "the healthcare century." If healthcare continues to grow according to forecast, by 2100 it will be the world's largest economic sector, but also the biggest economic problem in many countries!

To address this, policy-makers need to shift towards a more preventive approach to health. We need to anticipate problems and to develop healthier environments for our citizens to live in and to adopt healthier lifestyles. To meet this challenge, many actions in different areas should be combined.

We would need, for example, to strengthen the health dimension within urbanisation and mobility policies, to ensure the availability of public transport/cycle paths, to influence architectural structures so as to develop opportunities to enhance physical activity, and to tackle environmental issues such as noise or air pollution.

Investing in health promotion and disease prevention is important in supporting a preventive approach as well. In the animal health area, our new strategy adopted in 2007 already brings prevention to the forefront. And action on animal welfare is an integral part of this strategy – for example, by regulating the long distance transport of live animals we can help to prevent the spread of animal diseases across the EU.

Let me now say a few words about citizen's confidence, especially in relation to new technologies. The session just before my intervention addressed this important aspect.

Technologies and innovation are at the heart of our policies. New technologies offer many new opportunities for citizens, and I am pleased to see that you will have the opportunity, during lunchtime to get a snapshot of the potential of some new technological innovations exhibited at the conference.

What we need to do, is to correctly assess the impact of some of these technologies on the daily lives of Europeans. This is particularly true for sensitive issues such as biotechnology, cloning, nanotechnology or the use of chemicals.

It is necessary to better understand what European citizens think about these new emerging technologies. Their risk perceptions can be, and usually are, considerably different to those of regulators.

The recent Flash Eurobarometer study, carried out to assess citizens' attitudes towards animal cloning for food production, illustrates the importance of doing this. The survey revealed that the large majority of Europeans have a generally negative perception of animal cloning for food production. As public authorities, we have to take the results of such surveys seriously into consideration and integrate them in our policy-making.

At the same time, however, it is our duty as policymakers and regulators to translate scientific assessments into layman's language and to explain to citizens the advantages and disadvantages of certain technologies.

I would now like to stress the importance of sustainability as a key challenge for our future health policies. We need to act on this now.

Looking at our EU animal health and food safety policies, our current experience demonstrates that we have built a solid system to ensure our food is safe and to respond to any potential crisis in a speedy and effective manner.

Society and global constraints tell us today that the issue of sustainability can no longer be avoided and that food, and the way in which it is produced, plays a key role in defining sustainable lifestyles. At the same time, resources are becoming increasingly scarce and analysts often question the availability of food and water in the mid to long-term.

Another Eurobarometer survey has confirmed that consumers are increasingly concerned about the way their food is produced, and are ready to change their spending habits in order to purchase food which has been produced in an animal welfare-friendly way. However, they often struggle to identify these products on the supermarket shelves. My services are currently reflecting on how we could make it easier in future for consumers to identify, through labelling, products which meet high animal welfare standards.

Climate change also deserves particular attention for its severe impact on human, animal and plant health and also on the planet's biodiversity. It has implications for the daily lives of EU citizens and can further increase the direct and indirect health risks for European and other populations. Again in this respect, a preventive approach is needed.

Rather than waiting to face potential crisis, we need today to make sure our policies are sustainable. To do so, it will be key to develop, within and outside the European Commission, methodologies and standards for sustainable production and consumption of food and in communicating these to consumers. In developing these methodologies and standards we should be taking into account climate change and the environmental degradation.

To conclude, I would like to underline again that there are many challenges ahead of us in the fields of public health, animal health and welfare and food safety. In the current context, it is crucial for policy-makers to prioritise action and to make the best use of the available - restricted – resources to tackle the most urgent challenges.

We need to concentrate on issues where the EU added value is higher. I am aware that this afternoon there is a session dedicated to examining prioritisation for EU public health policies. I hope it will help bringing our reflection on this further.

Ladies and gentlemen, I wish you fruitful discussions this afternoon and tomorrow. I hope they will offer you opportunities to exchange views on these important challenges with other participants.

And to the youngest people present here today, please do not be shy in your interventions. We do need your perception and opinions.

Thank you for your attention.

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