In most countries, people who have a low socioeconomic status and those who live in poor or marginalised communities have a higher risk of dying from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) than do more advantaged groups and communities. Smoking rates, blood pressure, and several other NCD risk factors are often higher in groups with low socioeconomic status than in those with high socioeconomic status; the social gradient also depends on the country's stage of economic development, cultural factors, and social and health policies. Social inequalities in risk factors account for more than half of inequalities in major NCDs, especially for cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer. People in low-income countries and those with low socioeconomic status also have worse access to health care for timely diagnosis and treatment of NCDs than do those in high-income countries or those with higher socioeconomic status. Reduction of NCDs in disadvantaged groups is necessary to achieve substantial decreases in the total NCD burden, making them mutually reinforcing priorities. Effective actions to reduce NCD inequalities include equitable early childhood development programmes and education; removal of barriers to secure employment in disadvantaged groups; comprehensive strategies for tobacco and alcohol control and for dietary salt reduction that target low socioeconomic status groups; universal, financially and physically accessible, high-quality primary care for delivery of preventive interventions and for early detection and treatment of NCDs; and universal insurance and other mechanisms to remove financial barriers to health care. Copyright © 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.