ZURICH (Reuters) - Drugmaker Novartis AG has begun a program in Kenya, Ethiopia and Vietnam to supply 15 low-cost medicines to fight chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.

The Swiss-based pharmaceuticals group said on Thursday its scheme would supply drugs for just $1 per treatment per month to governments, aid groups and others for a range of conditions that also includes cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

The drug list includes Novartis's valsartan for hypertension, vildagliptin for diabetes, and generics from its Sandoz division including tamoxifen for breast cancer. The company aims eventually to expand the scheme to 30 developing countries.

For comparison, in the United States, a generic form of tamoxifen costs about $100 per month, according to the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

In Australia, the full cost of a 60-day course of vildagliptin tablets is about $97 Australian dollars ($67.44), according to the country's publicly funded NPS Medicine Wise.

Responding to past criticism of the industry over the cost of medicines in low-income countries, many firms including Novartis, Roche and GlaxoSmithKline already provide drugs at lower prices than in the developed world.

Novartis chose Kenya, Ethiopia and Vietnam because of the problems people there have in obtaining sophisticated medicines and because the company said it already has a strong presence and ties to non-governmental organizations there.

Poor healthcare infrastructure and little education about disease, as well as cost, are among the obstacles many people in developing countries face in gaining access to advanced drugs.

Novartis did not immediately return phone calls seeking details.

The United Nations has highlighted concerns over the developing world's ability to cope with escalating chronic disease, citing data showing about 85 percent of premature deaths from non-communicable diseases occur in developing countries.

The U.N. estimates more than 40 percent of adults in many African countries have high blood pressure, while four-fifths of the world's 350 million diabetes sufferers are in developing nations.

Vietnam has seen a recent rise in obesity-related metabolic disorders including Type 2 diabetes especially in urban areas where diets are getting richer and fast-service restaurants are proliferating, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

Other pharmaceutical companies have publicized similar efforts to trim drug costs in the developing world.

Amid pressure on the pharmaceuticals industry to do more, GlaxoSmithKline in 2009 agreed to slash drug costs for poor countries. Novartis's cross-town rival, Roche, is working with the government in Ivory Coast to provide medicines for breast cancer and hepatitis.