Transcript of Press Conference – Canberra – Plain Packaging of Tobacco, Alcohol, Palm Oil, Health Reform, COAG, PBS
View by date:Previous Ministers
06 July 2011
Topics: Plain Packaging of Tobacco, Alcohol, Palm Oil, Health Reform, COAG, PBS
Nicola Roxon: Thanks very much for coming. My name's Nicola Roxon and I'm the Health Minister, and I'm here to briefly talk to you about a very proud moment for our Government.
We have just introduced into the Parliament the world's first plain packaging for tobacco legislation.
This is part of our Government's very determined campaign to reduce the levels of smoking in the community and to reduce the harm caused to so many thousands of Australians. Fifteen thousand Australians still die each and every year from tobacco-related illness, and our health system and our economy bear the burden of over $30 billion worth of costs as a result of smoking each year.
We believe we can reduce that grief and harm caused to Australians and across the community by reducing smoking rates, and that's at the heart of why we have introduced plain packaging legislation.
This legislation if it's passed by the Parliament means that all tobacco products in Australia will need to be sold in drab dark-brown packaging. There will be larger health warnings. And there will only be a brand name in regular font size and print that will identify the different brands.
This is our absolute clear objective that we will reduce the number of people that take up smoking to start with, that we will take away any of the remaining glamour that might be attached to smoking, and that it will take away what has been used, a packet of cigarettes, of this size, coming in and out of a person's pocket, 20 or 30 times a day, has in the past been able to promote a brand. No longer will that be the case.
These packs when they're used by smokers will clearly just show the harm that can be caused by smoking, and we hope will reduce the attractiveness to many thousands of Australians. If they don't take up smoking to start with the very addictive nature of tobacco, of course, will be able to reap less harm and damage on Australians.
Introducing this legislation today I think shows that the big tobacco's intimidation tactics have not worked. Our Government won't be deterred from taking this action. And we believe that we are on very strong ground, although this is a world first, taking this action, and are determined to proceed with it.
So any questions for you?
I'm happy to answer.
Journalist: How much will, is the estimate of like - the Government's estimate of the cost of likely legal action? I see that the - one of the tobacco companies is still going to go to go to the full Federal Court next month to get FOI - the FOI done, the FOI, the documents on the estimated legal cost.
Is that correct? And can you give us the figures on it?
Nicola Roxon: Look, my understanding - I've made very clear to the media and the public that we're not going to litigate our legal arguments in the media. I'm happy to answer those general questions.
My understanding, that FOI dispute that is in the Federal Court is over legal advice that was provided to the then government in 1995. Obviously whatever processes need to be followed through for handling freedom of information requests will be continued. Why advice provided in 1995 is particularly relevant to this dispute or not I guess is a matter that you would have to put to the tobacco companies.
Journalist: Are tobacco companies going to lose money over these changes? Because there's only a six week period between when the laws come into effect and the first… and when they have to start manufacturing these plain packages, they've got to try and clear the shelves of existing product and then mount these ones from 1 July.
Nicola Roxon: Well they've got very long lead time of course. It has not been a secret that the Government is taking this action. The exposure draft legislation has been out for the last two months. We're at the start of July. And the enforcement provisions of this legislation commenced in 12 months time on 1 July 2012. The legislation will start to have effect from 1 January. There's a generous transition period. We believe that any company that is interested in doing the right thing and complying with the laws can easily make these changes within that time.
And we believe whatever time period was given that tobacco companies would have complained about its introduction.
Journalist: I thought I'd saw that they'd made 12.
Nicola Roxon: So there's three phases, there are three dates in the legislation when the laws come into effect, when the stocking and manufacturing of particular product in Australia needs to comply with the regulations, and then when the offences can be enforced, those three dates - 1 January, 1 May, and 1 July, all apply, so that we have full implementation and full re… compliance required 12 months from now on 1 July in 2012.
Journalist: The Government already seems to be losing revenue from tobacco excise. Are you worried that you might lose quite a bit more when you - people stop smoking as a result of this…
Nicola Roxon: I could not be more delighted if we were to lose the Government's take on tobacco revenue, and that meant that we could save billions more dollars in the health system not treating people who have got tobacco-related diseases. We do of course contribute to revenue through the excise that is on tobacco, but it is outweighed, four, five, six fold by the amount of money we spend in the health system and in the economy coping with the damage caused by tobacco.
It's not just the 15,000 people that die. It's the treatment that they need throughout tackling cancer, it is the many thousands of other Australians who are sick and unwell for years and years and require treatment. Of course our health system should and does treat those people with compassion, and generously. But nevertheless, it is a big cost to the health system. And if we can reduce the smoking rates we will reduce that cost burden. And I believe that we would be ahead, but obviously we don't have the precise figures - and we are not making any outrageous claims about how many people will reduce smoking as a result of this measure.
We think it will have a big impact.
But we will have to see when these are introduced what that impact is. And of course we're combining it with our social marketing campaigns and our other restrictions in the hope that this will meet our target of reducing the smoking rate in Australia to 10 per cent by 2018, and halving the smoking rate for Indigenous Australians within that time.
Journalist: And you've taken action today against tobacco. There's a coalition of around 20 health groups later this morning who want the government now to introduce a volumetric tax on alcohol to try and reduce binge drinking. Would you be supporting that measure at the tax summit in October?
Nicola Roxon: Well I certainly support that this is an important issue to have a discussion on. I think there are some complex issues. Our Government has said that we're prepared to look at any evidence-based intervention particularly in relation to some of the devastating information that we've seen in the Northern Territory. So we are prepared to look at how a floor price might work.
I think we need to be very careful that there can be some other consequences from introducing volumetric tax. One of them being that some of the products very popular with young people may actually reduce in price. Don't think that that would be a positive outcome.
But we very much respect the people who have been advocating for this. We certainly will work with them. And they'll have the opportunity at the tax summit to be able to raise that issue.
Journalist: On palm oil labelling, the argument there is that there's also a health benefit to - making people aware of whether there's palm oil in products. Is that something that you support or… what's your view on palm oil?
Nicola Roxon: Yeah, you're probably aware that we commissioned Dr Neal Blewett to undertake what was a very detailed inquiry into food labelling generally. He's made his report, with a recommendation of more than 60 - Sorry, with a report of more than 60 recommendations, including one on palm oil.
That's a process - we're now assessing those recommendations. We need to negotiate with our state and territory colleagues. We have always been unashamed in our view that providing consumers with more information is a good thing.
But this is quite a complex issue, about whether it's part of general reforms to labelling, whether it's something that just occurs for palm oil and, of course, we will be carefully considering what's the appropriate action to take. Our preference, which we've been very public about, is that it will be part of our whole approach to labelling of food products, rather than a change that is just about palm oil. But obviously, we have an open mind. If there are particular suggestions people make about how we can handle particularly damaging products.
Journalist: So can I just clarify, as Health Minister, do you want the issue of alcohol tax discussed at the Tax Summit in [indistinct]…
Nicola Roxon: Well the Treasurer's already made clear that it will, indeed, be that people will be able to raise those issues at the summit. I think that that's a good you know, good thing to be dealt with. There are a vast range of issues that are going to be up for discussion at that Tax Summit. This will be amongst them and the Treasurer has made quite clear that he is open to that discussion being held at the summit.
Journalist: You only put this as one of the issues, when it is perhaps arguably one of the biggest preventable health issues facing the community.
Nicola Roxon: The Tax Summit has to deal with a very vast range of issues and this will be one of the vast range of issues that the Tax Summit needs to deal with. It is a very important issue, given the health impacts. And you, of course, have seen our Government take very strong action in tobacco, very extensive action in alcohol and, of course, are grappling with all of the emerging evidence about the risks caused by obesity. They've been the three preventable diseases that we have been most focused on and I stand by that.
I think that there is a growing alliance of people who are interested in talking in a very detailed way about alcohol taxation and the Treasurer has made clear he's happy for that to be on the agenda.
Journalist: Will your - the Preventative Health Agency is looking at floor price isn't it? Will that be the sorts of data that that may be showing up - will that be put at the Tax Summit?
Nicola Roxon: Look, I think it depends how advanced the work is by then. We have in the - for the new Preventative Health Agency, they have prepared a draft plan. That draft plan needs to go to all state and territory ministers. That draft plan does include commissioning work on a floor price - how it would work, whether it would be effective, how you would introduce it, but that still needs to be endorsed by state colleagues. And my understanding is that it's on the agenda for the August [indistinct] meeting in Darwin.
Journalist: What was the impact of the postponement of COAG in terms of the health reform process? Is that going to mean things are - well obviously it's going to mean further things will be delayed, that were to have been covered on 1 July?
Nicola Roxon: I don't think it will contribute any further. There are, of course, some delays which we've been public about, where the 1 July start dates would not be possible. But our negotiations have actually been extremely cooperative and fruitful and my understanding is that we now really only have some very minor issues to be resolved before the detailed agreements can be signed. Certainly no issue of any significant substance that would require the Prime Minister and premiers to be discussing this at a face to face COAG meeting. So I don't think that the postponement, in any way affects the timeframe for the introduction of our health reforms.
Journalist: So, what, these [indistinct] signed - these agreements can be signed outside the COAG process?
Nicola Roxon: Look, I'm sure they can. But those matters would obviously have to be put to the Prime Minister and premiers. I'm dealing with the content as the Health Minister, the structure of how COAG - how and when COAG meets is obviously a matter for first ministers.
Journalist: One of those issues was the authority that's going to look at the new efficient price. Have you got agreement of the states to that now?
Nicola Roxon: We've been negotiating with them in detail about the legislation. The draft legislation has been provided to the states. They've provided us with feedback. We believe that we have close to full agreement on all of that detail. We plan to introduce that legislation into the Parliament in August, when we return from the winter parliamentary break. And there is no indication that any concerns that have been raised by the states will not be resolved and able to meet that timeframe.
Journalist: Can you tell us what sort of time period the states will get in terms of notification of the findings of hospital performance, which is one of the known issues?
Nicola Roxon: Yes, 45 days, which includes a sort of preliminary notification and a notification to the local hospital networks. As you would know, having worked in health for a long time, that's a pretty quick turnaround for the handling of data and actually, I think, makes clear that the states and territories who are the systems managers and want that to be clearly set out in these health reform arrangements as well as in the performance monitoring, want, as the system manager, to know if there is anything that is going wrong, so that corrective action can be taken as quickly as possible.
And we believe that that only enhances how our reforms can deliver improvements to the health services.
Journalist: Minister, there have been complaints that the reforms you have to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme are taking way too long to deliver price cuts to Australian taxpayers. We're paying 10 times more than they are in Britain for Simvastatin, one of the biggest selling drugs to treat cholesterol. And when Lipitor comes off patent next year, we'll be paying far more than some countries are paying now while it's under patent.
Do you think it's time to re-look at these and to speed up the savings you can get for taxpayers, so that you can subsidise the medicines that your government says it can't afford to put on the PBS now?
Nicola Roxon: Well I would be delighted if you would like to pursue with the pharmaceutical companies, any interest that they have in reducing prices further. We have negotiated an agreement with the pharmaceutical companies that delivers several billion dollars worth of savings, and introduces and speeds up a price disclosure arrangement, so that some of the extra price that consumers were paying and pharmacists were paying for drugs, will now be properly declared and there will be proper competition in those areas of very expensive - sorry, very heavily used drugs, not necessarily at a higher price, but used by millions of Australians.
We believe our price disclosure reforms will start to provide even greater benefits to the community over time. But I am very public about the fact that the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme costs us a lot of money. If there are good and sensible ways to be able to find further savings, we are always prepared to look at those. Our preference is to do that in consultation with the pharmaceutical industry and, of course, it means if you're able to deliver those savings, it gives more headroom for new drugs that are seeking to be listed on the PBS.
Okay. Thanks very much for coming guys.
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