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Transcript of interview with Tony Jones: Lateline, ABC: 6 April 2011: plain packaging of tobacco; tobacco excise

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THE HON NICOLA ROXON MP Minister for Health and Ageing


Interview with Tony Jones, Lateline, ABC

6 April 2011


Topics: Plain Packaging of Tobacco, Tobacco Excise

Tony Jones: Here is the Health Minister, Nicola Roxon. She joined us in the studio just a short time ago to discuss the Government's plan to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes.  

Nicola Roxon, thanks for joining us.  

Nicola Roxon: It's a pleasure.  

Tony Jones: Is this plain packaging legislation unique in the world?  

Nicola Roxon: This is. Australia is leading the world. We're the only country to have taken this step and tomorrow I'm going to be releasing the exposure draft of the legislation. I'm going to be releasing a mock-up of what plain packaging for cigarettes will look like.  

We've done a lot of research to ensure that we make the cigarette pack as unattractive as possible, because this is about taking away the last opportunity that tobacco companies have in Australia to try to market their products by making them look luxurious or pretending that they might be light and better for your health. And our Government's determined to do all we can to stop new people being attracted to smoking and we think this is an important step to achieve that aim.  

Tony Jones: OK. Well what will they look like, then? I mean, you don't have the mock-up with you, but the taskforce recommendations were for graphic health warnings taking up 90 per cent, at least 90 per cent of the front of a cigarette packet and 100 per cent of the back of a cigarette packet. Is that what it'll look like?  

Nicola Roxon: It is close to what it will look like. We've done research on the colour. Apparently dark olive is the least attractive colour - olive green - for any smokers and particularly for young people. That'll form the base. There'll be graphic warnings on the front and back - 90 per cent of the back of the pack and about 75 per cent of the front of the pack and we're updating the graphic warnings as well. The only marker that any manufacturer will have is just the name, the brand that will be in a standard font size. It'll be in standard font as well.  

Tony Jones: So they won't be able to use their specially designed brand label, as it were, designed by, obviously, advertising teams?  

Nicola Roxon: No, they absolutely will not. I mean, we know that tobacco companies spend millions and millions of dollars researching what their logos should look like, what colours they should use, if they emboss the packets or not. We're taking all of that away because we want to make sure that every last bit of glamour that there might be in smoking is removed. And that's really the step that we're taking. We hope that this means young people will not start smoking and we hope it'll provide an opportunity for many people who are addicted to decide to quit.  

Tony Jones: Is there anything to stop the tobacco companies simply manufacturing a permanent box that they can give away at point of sale that still carries their logo and the nice colours or whatever and let people tip their cigarettes into that?  

Nicola Roxon: Well, look, I'm sure that there is no limit to the ingenuity that tobacco companies will want to take to fighting this challenge. We've drafted the legislation to make it clear that every tobacco product will be covered by this. We've taken very clear steps to restrict that they can't put the logo on the cigarette itself, but rather than on the packet.

I know that tobacco, and the Government knows that big tobacco companies are going to fight this step, but when you still have 15,000 Australians dying every year because of tobacco-related illnesses caused from smoking, this is a fight it's worth us having.  

Tony Jones: It could be a very expensive fight, so are you opening up taxpayers to a massive legal battle that could go right through the courts all the way up to the High Court and could in fact take years?  

Nicola Roxon: Well, look, the tobacco companies will have the right to challenge, they can use the laws the same way other people can and I expect that they will. I hope they don't.  

But you need to ask the other question: how much is this harmful drug costing us now? 15,000 people die in Australia every year; around the world it's millions of people. But that's just the people who die. Think of all the huge pain on families that are affected by death, but the illness and disease that we treat through our health system each and every year because of tobacco-related illnesses is enormous - over $30 billion every year in the social costs, the health costs, the economic costs.  

So really we are trying to do something that will improve people's health, but it will have an impact for taxpayers, a positive impact for taxpayers, if we can reduce the number of people that are smoking.  

Tony Jones: Is there a limit to what you're prepared to pay to fight a legal battle with big tobacco?  

Nicola Roxon: Well I don't think we can use the idea that if you hang a threat of legal action over the head of the Government that the Government will never act. Big tobacco fought against decisions when previous governments wanted to restrict advertising, they've started a campaign to stop this measure that we're taking, to stop restrictions on smoking in cars with children.  

I mean, I don't think that there is anyone in this country who believes that smoking is good for you.

I've never met a smoker who wants or hopes that their child will be a smoker. We can actually do something that will make a difference and I want to make sure that the Government takes every step it can to ensure that this is successful.  

Tony Jones: Their legal case will sort of go along these lines: it's not a health issue, it's about the right to use trademarks. They're basically saying it's an infringement of their right to free trade and the

ability to use trademarks. So, they'll take it outside the health issue to fight the legal battle. I mean, is your advice telling you that you will win a case like that?  

Nicola Roxon: Well we think we're on very strong ground. We have taken very careful advice and we believe that the interests of the community and protecting people's health is a very strong interest. We do things to protect people's health all the time that can on occasion override other rights that people might have.  

I know big tobacco wants to fight this, but there's a reason they want to: because they know that their packaging helps sell their products. They know that if they sell more products, more people get addicted and they have higher profits.

We know the consequence of that is more people get ill, more people get cancer and more people die from this very addictive killer habit and we want to stop it.  

Tony Jones: They also know that a lot of other countries around the world will be watching exactly what happens here. It'll be a test case, a government against big tobacco. And I'm wondering: do you see what you're doing as a kind of model for other countries, particularly in the third world and in our region, in Asia and the Pacific, where the big tobacco companies are moving aggressively to establish new markets?  

Nicola Roxon: Well, Australia's been a leader in this area for a long time and this is now another step where we're going to be leading the world. I do hope that people will watch what's happening here. I think there are many countries that are already considering this.  

There has been, through the World Health Organisations, recommendations that countries should look at plain packaging as part of their armoury, if you like, of weapons against smoking and addiction to tobacco. So I think other countries will watch what we're doing. Other countries will move down this path irrespective of what we're doing. We're happy to be breaking new ground, but I am absolutely sure that there will be others who will follow.  

Tony Jones: The strategy is to get the smoking rate in this country down below 10 per cent. It's currently around 17 per cent. Why not just do it by taxation, which can't be legally challenged?  

Nicola Roxon: Well we've taken a range of comprehensive steps. We did last year increase the excise on tobacco. That's had a big impact. It was a big jump for the first time in a long time ...  

Tony Jones: 25 per cent.  

Nicola Roxon: 25 per cent. That led to a lot of people deciding to give up, it led to a lot of calls to the Quitline. We know that if you do have a big jump in price, that does encourage a lot of people to stop smoking  

Tony Jones: Well this is the point, isn't it, because the Preventative Health Taskforce asked for two jumps, progressive jumps, one of 25 per cent, which you've done, and another one of 25 per cent, which they're still expecting. When will it happen?  

Nicola Roxon: Well, the focus that we've got at the moment and the steps that I'm announcing tomorrow are that we're introducing this plain packaging legislation and it's part of a whole package we announced, including the increase in the excise, including making sure that we put nicotine patches, for example, on to the PBS, including running our social marketing campaign, explaining that every cigarette takes you a step closer to cancer and the Indigenous-specific campaign to break the chain in

Indigenous communities where there are very high rates of smoking. So we don't have on the table another increase now. The Preventative Health Taskforce did recommend that.  

Tony Jones: So, when you say it's not on the table now, does that mean not on the table for the coming Budget? Because presumably there'd be ministers who are looking at cuts to programs in the coming Budget and yet you could raise a considerable amount of money by doing what the Preventative Health Taskforce wants you to do and raising taxation by that second tranche of 25 per cent?  

Nicola Roxon: Look, I think when we have just raised the amount of excise for the first time in nearly a decade, 25 per cent, that's a pretty big hit. We know that it can have an effect, and we know that if we balance it with all these other steps that we're taking, we can have a comprehensive approach.  

Tony Jones: But if it can have an effect one time - if it has such a big effect the first time, clearly taxation works, so why not just do it again, until people stop smoking?  

Nicola Roxon: Well, I think, Tony, I would be pretty sure that if I came on in this interview tonight and said that that's what we were announcing, that you would take the reverse approach, which is: "When does it end? How many times can you keep increasing this excise?" We've announced a ...  

Tony Jones: No, I'm just asking - but this is all couched in what the Preventative Health Taskforce has recommended you do.  

Nicola Roxon: We've announced our comprehensive response to that and that included a 25 per cent increase which was introduced last year. It included plain packaging, the first time in the world that any country is taking this step. It includes the other things that we're doing in social marketing and support for people to quit. That is pretty comprehensive. I will put that record of what the Government's delivering up against any other government, past in Australia or currently, in terms of battling tobacco.  

So what I'm telling you is: that's not in our thinking now. I'm not going to say that we would never contemplate that into the future. We need to be prepared to take steps to tackle tobacco and what we really want to do: we don't want it to cost people more and more money; we want people to never start smoking, and that's why we're trying to take away this last remaining vestige of how tobacco companies promote their product, pretend it's glamorous, try to hook young people into it and the plain packaging for tobacco sales that we're announcing tomorrow will be a big step towards that.  

Tony Jones: Alright. Briefly, so that we know what amount of money we're talking about, you raised $6 billion from tobacco taxes right now. If you increase an extra 25 per cent on top of that what would you raise? What is it you're foregoing by not agreeing to do what the Preventative Health Taskforce has asked for?  

Nicola Roxon: Well we don't have any intentions to be increasing the excise further, so I don't think that's a question ...  

Tony Jones: But what's the amount of money? You must have looked at it; you must know what the last 25 per cent raised.  

Nicola Roxon: Well, you can do your sums for that. What we are announcing, which I think really does need to have some time taken on it for what it can deliver. There are people who are addicted to tobacco, there are people who will never be able to give up their habit, and they are the people who want to make sure their kids don't smoke.  

So we can't just have changed the price and think that that will solve all of the problems. We have to make sure we break that chain of new people not becoming addicted to these products. And that's why we want to make sure we're looking at the promotion, it's why we're trying to close down advertising that's on the internet that's got through a loophole in existing legislation. We need to do this comprehensively and increasing the excise is only one part of that and we've taken the step that we intend to take, the 25 per cent increase. That was our response to the Preventative Health Taskforce.  

Tony Jones: OK. Alright. Quickly, with the time we've got left: the legislation is draft legislation, I think it goes in place for 60 days, which means the Opposition will be looking at it. Any chance do you believe you'll get bipartisan support to allow this legislation through Parliament?  

Nicola Roxon: Look, I really hope that we will. I'm surprised that Mr Abbott hasn't yet said he will agree to this.

Of course we know unfortunately the Liberal Party still takes donations from tobacco companies, something that Labor stopped long ago.

I'm fearful that that means maybe Mr Abbott will have other interests in mind in deciding whether to support this measure or not. But I hope he'll join with us. We're going to be world leaders. He's a former Health minister and he knows that tobacco is a killer product. So I hope he will decide to support us.  

Tony Jones: If he doesn't, would you expect some Liberals at least to cross the floor to support that legislation as a matter of conscience? For example, you've got doctors, Dr Mal Washer is one of them.  

Nicola Roxon: Well, look, I don't know. I don't know whether any members of the Liberal Party would do that. I think that there would be concern in a very wide range of areas in the Parliament, including in the Liberal and National Party, about doing all we can to stop the harms of tobacco. But I think we need to let it take its course.  

The question at the moment for the leadership of the Liberal Party is whether Mr Abbott will support this measure. As I say, as Health Minister, he's well aware of the harms of tobacco and he's very into health himself. This is an opportunity to be able to join us in leading the world in the fight against tobacco.  

Tony Jones: Nicola Roxon, we'll have to leave you there. We thank you very much for coming in to join us tonight.  

Nicola Roxon: It's a pleasure.