Access to medicines and vaccines to prevent and treat non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is unacceptably low worldwide. In the 2011 UN political declaration on the prevention and control of NCDs, heads of government made several commitments related to access to essential medicines, technologies, and vaccines for such diseases. 30 years of experience with policies for essential medicines and 10 years of scaling up of HIV treatment have provided the knowledge needed to address barriers to long-term effective treatment and prevention of NCDs. More medicines can be acquired within existing budgets with efficient selection, procurement, and use of generic medicines. Furthermore, low-income and middle-income countries need to increase mobilisation of domestic resources to cater for the many patients with NCDs who do not have access to treatment. Existing initiatives for HIV treatment offer useful lessons that can enhance access to pharmaceutical management of NCDs and improve adherence to long-term treatment of chronic illness; policy makers should also address unacceptable inequities in access to controlled opioid analgesics. In addition to off-patent medicines, governments can promote access to new and future on-patent medicinal products through coherent and equitable health and trade policies, particularly those for intellectual property. Frequent conflicts of interest need to be identified and managed, and indicators and targets for access to NCD medicines should be used to monitor progress. Only with these approaches can a difference be made to the lives of hundreds of millions of current and future patients with NCDs.