The United Nations General Assembly has said that alcohol, tobacco and obesity are part of a non-communicable disease "epidemic" that could cost the global economy US$30tn over the next two decades.

Tobacco received the strongest rebuke at the General Assembly meeting today (20 September), but alcohol abuse, poor diet and physical inactivity were all singled out as the main causes of a sharp rise in non-communicable diseases. In what the UN said was a "landmark summit" on the issue, all member states have signed a "political declaration" to do more to prevent so-called lifestyle diseases.

Pressure is rising on Governments as the cost of treating non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, cancers and liver cirrhosis, increases. “These are the diseases that break the bank," said the director-general of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan, speaking at the UN summit.

She cited a study by Harvard University estimating that, over the next 20 years, non-communicable diseases would cost the global economy more than $30tn, or 48% global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010.

However, UN Political Declaration appeared to stop short of calling for tougher Government regulation, apart from on tobacco, and did not lay down specific targets for member states to achieve. "We should encourage individuals to make the smart choices that will protect their health," said UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

The UK health minister, Andrew Lansley - who attended the summit and co-chaired a discussion panel - repeated views that he expressed to drinks industry leaders in the UK last week. "While regulation and tax both play important roles, a free society can not simply legislate those health problems out of existence," Lansley told UN delegates. "People and businesses must be engaged, and the food and drinks industry should be seen, not just as part of the problem, but part of the solution."