The growing global burden of non-communicable diseases in poor countries and poor populations has been neglected by policy makers, major multilateral and bilateral aid donors, and academics. Despite strong evidence for the magnitude of this burden, the preventability of its causes, and the threat it poses to already strained health care systems, national and global actions have been inadequate. Globalisation is an important determinant of non-communicable disease epidemics since it has direct effects on risks to populations and indirect effects on national economies and health systems. The globalisation of the production and marketing campaigns of the tobacco and alcohol industries exemplify the challenges to policy makers and public health practitioners. A full range of policy responses is required from government and non-governmental agencies; unfortunately the capacity and resources for this response are insufficient, and governments need to respond appropriately. The progress made in controlling the tobacco industry is a modest cause for optimism.