Chronic diseases and injuries are overtaking communicable diseases as the leading health problems in all but a few parts of the world. This rapidly changing global disease pattern is closely linked to changing lifestyles, which include diets rich in sugars, widespread use of tobacco and increased consumption of alcohol. These lifestyle factors also significantly impact on oral health, and oral diseases qualify as major public health problems owing to their high prevalence and incidence in all regions of the world. Like all diseases, they affect primarily the disadvantaged and socially marginalised populations, causing severe pain and suffering, impairing function and impacting on quality of life. Traditional treatment of oral diseases is extremely costly even in industrialised countries and is unaffordable in most low and middle-income countries. The WHO global strategy for prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases and the 'common risk factor approach' offer new ways of managing the prevention and control of oral diseases. This document outlines the current oral health situation and development trends at global level as well as WHO strategies and approaches for better oral health in the 21 st century.