Transcript of Interview - With Beverley O’connor and Michael Rowland - ABC 24 News Breakfast - Melbourne - 8 April 2011
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E & OETOPICS: PLAIN PACKAGING OF TOBACCO
Beverley O'Connor: Now for more, Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon is in the studio with us.
I know the Budget is some time away now but is it true that there's going to be those cuts, those substantial cuts?
Nicola Roxon: Well, what is true is that it's going to be a difficult Budget and of course the expenditure in the health portfolio, each and every dollar of it, is always examined in each Budget and I can't tell the research profession that they also won't have their money examined but I'm not going to make announcements today. The Budget is several weeks away.
We take very seriously and very carefully any expenditure and any savings that are needed and the research profession have delivered enormous benefits into health. Of course we want to make sure they continue to do their valuable work but they're not able to be protected. There's not a carve-out that says research spending should never be looked at.
Beverley O'Connor: Why not protect it? As Brendan Crabb said there, it is already a very lean area. Why not protect something that can bring benefits for the country down the track?
Nicola Roxon: We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on medical research and we spend billions of dollars on providing pharmaceuticals that are made as a result of that research, we spend billions of dollars on cancer treatments and others. There is no magic pudding in health expenditure or elsewhere which says that when you have new pressures and increased costs that you never look at the expenditure that you're already committed to, to see if the money is being used in the best possible way.
So the Budget is still several weeks away. Of course we don't make announcements before the Budget. We do consider everything very carefully and I can absolutely assure the research community that we understand the value of their work and, of course, we would look carefully if we needed to make any decisions that would affect them.
Michael Rowland: Are you concerned you're getting public rallies as early as next week and a united opposition to any looming cuts?
Nicola Roxon: Well, I can't afford to be concerned about that. Of course I take their views seriously but each and every area within the health portfolio, which is a multibillion dollar portfolio, could similarly take that sort of action.
We have enormous demands in mental health that are currently not being met. Of course we have growing levels of chronic disease. We have an ageing population. You know, there's no magic - if the expenditure in health keeps going like this, there's no magic to how we can fund it. There is a limit to the sorts of revenue that the government can raise and we need to make choices and prioritise our expenditure and that's what we intend to do.
Beverley O'Connor: Let's move on to the cigarette packages which we spent a bit of time talking about yesterday and, in fact, getting people's opinions around it and a lot of people - you unveiled this new packaging yesterday - but a lot of people said if people are going to smoke they're going to smoke. We've tried a lot of things in terms of deterring them, in terms of packaging. Why is this going to make any difference?
Nicola Roxon: Well, we have tried a lot of things and a lot of them have made an enormous difference. I mean, in 15 and 20 years we have reduced the smoking rate down to 16½ per cent - it was at 30 per cent.
This new packaging - you know, they're pretty graphic. They're designed to be plain, to make sure - there's ones with children, there's ones with the teeth, what can happen to your mouth and cancers. They're pretty revolting.
It may be that some people know this and will still smoke but, I can tell you, I have not met a single person who smokes who hopes or wants their child to smoke and if it means we can stop new people starting, if it means this actually makes it less glamorous, less attractive, less alluring to smoke, then we should do that and we think it can help us get the rate down to 10 per cent. That's the Government's target. It's very ambitious but we think it is achievable.
Michael Rowland: Not surprising the big tobacco companies are gearing up for a fight. They're threatening to take the Government to court on trademark infringement grounds. Are you confident of prevailing in any possible court case?
Nicola Roxon: Look, I know that we are breaking ground here. This is a world first but I think that we're on very strong legal grounds as well.
It is true that they will make allegations and they will probably sue us but ultimately we are able to make decisions that are in the public health interests of the community.
This is supported by the World Health Organization. You know, you heard similar sorts of arguments when we first tried to ban advertising for tobacco. You heard similar arguments when we introduced seatbelt laws and no one argues that that wasn't in the public's interest.
So I think they're going to have a difficult time but I am not naïve that they will try every trick in the book to stop us and obviously they've got legal rights that allow them to do that.
Beverley O'Connor: The brand, the brand itself - they will still have an opportunity to put their brand on that bottom section.
Nicola Roxon: Yes, so basically the way it works, we will regulate the colour, this olive green or olive brown colour. We'll regulate the size of the warning. The only thing will be a name and brand that will be standard font, standard print size, so they can't - they're not allowed to put any markings on individual cigarettes.
It is going to make a difference and, as we know, tobacco companies spend billions of dollars on designing the gold-embossing or the particular colour of the pack, because they know that attracts particular markets and we want to try to stop that. It's the last way they can promote their product.
Michael Rowland: Concern being raised, as you know, is this will make it much easier for potential counterfeiting of cigarettes. Has the Government factored that in?
Nicola Roxon: We have. We've had some discussions with the tobacco companies and others about that. We are open to them being able to put some marking on the actual box which would prevent counterfeiting or reduce the risks of it but we're not going to have that be used in some way, one which suggests the government endorses a tobacco product. We're not going to be the people putting on the counterfeiting measure because we don't want anyone to buy these products if we could have our way but we also don't want it to be used as some sort of marketing.
So we're talking to them about how that can be done but we're certainly open to their suggestions on that front.
Beverley O'Connor: What sort of support have you had from your counterparts internationally? Because you are - it is - it is pretty groundbreaking. Have other people expressed interest in doing the same?
Nicola Roxon: Yes, look, they have and I've been very heartened. New Zealand was quite public in their comments. I've had discussions with the US and the UK. They're very interested in what we're doing.
I think that we will be breaking ground here but we will not be the only people that take this action and while some people are going to be watching us and waiting, others are inevitably going down this path anyway and it's something that big tobacco will just need to deal with.
Michael Rowland: The Government's been battling big miners, big steel, with the carbon price. You're pretty brave to take on the deep pocket of big tobacco.
Nicola Roxon: Well, I don't think you can afford to be in a government that says, oh, well, if someone's got money to fight us we'll never take action that we know is right.
We were talking before about the Budget and the pressures on health. If we can reduce the thousands of Australians that get cancer, that need treatment, that die every year because this measure is successful, then not only is that good for the individuals and the families that suffer, it actually saves our Budget money.
So we're prepared to have this fight and I think that big tobacco should not assume that we will be frightened by their threats.
Beverley O'Connor: A lot of the commentary we were getting yesterday was also around the alcohol industry. Why don't you tackle the alcohol industry which in itself has enormous consequences to the health system in the same way that we've been tackling the tobacco industry?
Nicola Roxon: We are also taking steps to make sure that alcohol is used more sensibly. There is a difference, I think, and I don't want to be - I'm not an advocate for the alcohol industry but the very clear line for tobacco is that we know that there is no safe amount of tobacco that you can smoke - where with alcohol there is some contestability. It's very clear that there is damage that's caused for larger amounts of alcohol and I think there's growing evidence that even small amounts, particularly for young people, are damaging but in tobacco there is no contest.
Every cigarette presents a risk of cancer for the person that smokes it so we can afford to be very hardline because that evidence is crystal clear and has been for some time.
Michael Rowland: Putting your Labor Party hat on for the moment, George Wright is tipped to be the new national secretary of the Labor Party. Your thoughts? Is he the right man for the job?
Nicola Roxon: Well, look, it isn't up to me. George is a very capable person and actually there's a lot of contenders that are capable people. If he is chosen I think he will do a great job. I've worked well with him on other issues but ultimately it's a matter for the party not for the political arm of the party and we need to make sure that we've got good campaigners and good people in all different levels, whether it's in the Parliament or in the party and I'm sure he will do a great job.
Michael Rowland: There's a lot of work ahead for any - for whoever gets the job, for the Labor Party.
Nicola Roxon: Yeah, look, it's always a big job. They are important positions where we need strategic thinkers and good campaigners and we're lucky that we've got a lot of people that have come up through the Labor movement who've got that strategic ability and I think he's one of those people.
Beverley O'Connor: Just finally too, while we have you, we see the Defence Association ramping up its attack against the Minister, Stephen Smith, for coming out so strongly on this issue regarding the sex scandal in the Defence Force. As a woman and, of course, Julia Gillard, will the Cabinet really be going behind Stephen Smith in terms of this battle to really try and change the culture?
Nicola Roxon: Absolutely. Absolutely. I find it amazing that anyone could be anything other than horrified about the revelations. I think this is just - it made me feel sick in the way that I'm sure a lot of women, but I'm sure a lot of men too, just think, did they really do that? Is that really an acceptable thing?
Beverley O'Connor: That's a point, a lot of men find this unacceptable so why does Defence not?
Nicola Roxon: And Stephen is, I think, expressing a view not just as a Minister but as a father who no doubt would be horrified if something like this was happening to his daughter and I think it's surprising that anybody would be attacking him for clearly saying that this is not acceptable behaviour and something needs to be done.
Beverley O'Connor: Nicola Roxon, thank you for coming in.
Nicola Roxon: Thank you.
Michael Rowland: Thank you.
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