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Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation 2011

September 16, 2011
San Francisco, CA

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Hello, it’s great to be here. And thank you for that kind introduction.

I’m pleased to be here this morning at a time of unprecedented partnership among Pacific nations.

The United States began as a nation of Atlantic ports and cities. But for the last 150 years, we’ve also been a nation of the Pacific.

Over that time we’ve built steadily closer ties between our economies based on our shared interests in areas from trade to security to environmental protection. And one of the areas where we’ve had the biggest opportunity to work together is health.

For years, those health efforts have focused on the infectious diseases that can spread between our nations. Over the last decade, we’ve worked closely together to respond to a SARS epidemic that began in Asia and spread rapidly to North America, and stopped an H1N1 flu that originated in North America from becoming a global catastrophe.

But today I want to talk about how we can join forces to take on what has become an equally dangerous or even greater health threat for many economies, including the United States: chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

In the United States, chronic diseases account for 7 out of 10 deaths. But this is not just an American problem. In 2008, there were 16.5 million deaths from chronic disease in the Asia Pacific region. By 2030, global death from chronic disease is projected to rise to 52 million people.

That’s the human cost. But the economic cost is significant too. Chronic disease lowers productivity and raises absenteeism.

The World Health Organization estimates that between 2005 and 2015, chronic disease will drain $558 billion from China’s economy. That’s like wiping out an entire year of economic growth.

What’s more, chronic disease is a major driver of rising health care costs that put a growing burden on government, business, and family budgets – accounting for seventy-five percent of American health care spending.

Throughout my time in public service I’ve met with businesses of all sizes from farmers to the CEOs of large companies. And many of them have told me the same thing: that their biggest concern wasn’t the price of goods or shipping. It was rising health care costs. And one of the main reasons these costs are going up is chronic disease.

For these reasons, the World Economic Forum has ranked chronic disease as one of the top threats to global economic security. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that most of these diseases are preventable. And in many cases, we already know what to do. In the U.S., for example, we’re taking a multi-pronged approach.

First, we’re making it easier for people to get the preventive care that can help keep them healthy and catch small problems before they become big ones. It makes no sense for insurance to cover the foot amputation but not the diabetes screening that can prevent it. So last year we passed a health care reform law that has made preventive care – like diabetes screenings or mammograms – free for almost all Americans.

Second, we’re helping Americans live healthier lifestyles. We knew there were communities around the country that had developed innovative approaches to things like bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved neighborhoods, and creating more parks and trails so people can exercise. So we’ve made a historic investment in supporting these communities, so they can expand their efforts and become role models for the rest of the country.

Finally, we’ve stepped up our fight against tobacco use, which is still the leading cause of preventable death in the US and around the world. We’re banning strategies for marketing to youth, curbing the use of misleading terms like “light” and “mild,” and adding new graphic warning labels to cigarette packs that will make sure people know exactly what risk they’re taking if they light up.

This last idea is one we borrowed from other countries around the world. And it’s a perfect example of how sharing ideas can help us improve health.

The truth is that the risk factors for these diseases in America, from tobacco use to poor diet to lack of exercise, are the same risk factors for these diseases in Chile or Australia or Thailand. And if we face the same challenges, then the solutions we create can be useful to all of us.

So we all need to do a better job learning from each other while also sharing our best ideas.

Research is another area where we can work together. Twenty years ago, scientists in the U.S. and China wondered why so many children were being born with neural tube defects like spina bifida. In China alone, up to 100,000 children a year were being born with these defects, which were often fatal, and always devastating for families both personally and financially

One theory was that the mothers weren’t getting enough folic acid in their diets. So Chinese scientists got together with researchers from the CDC to conduct the largest study ever on giving mothers folic acid.

The results were stunning: in some regions of China, neural tube defects fell up to 85 percent. And now mothers around the world know to make sure they get enough folic acid.

We can achieve great things when we work together. But it’s not enough to reach across national lines. We also need to build partnerships with the private sector and with non-profits and foundations.

Business, in particular, has an interest in joining this fight. If you don’t feel the impact of chronic disease in rising health care costs, then you’ll feel it in lower productivity from your employees or a rising number of sick days. And business can also play a unique role in sharing solutions. Multinational companies are one of our best vehicles for carrying innovative ideas across national lines.

On Monday, I’ll be in New York for the first-ever high-level meeting at the United Nations General Assembly focusing on chronic diseases where we’ll talk about how to build these partnerships to improve health. But I also want to challenge all of you here right now to start thinking about what your country or business can do to help.

We have the knowledge and the tools to reduce the burden of chronic disease and deliver a dramatic boost to economic growth on both sides of the Pacific. We just need to act now and act together.

Thank you.