21 May, 2015 Last updated: 21 May, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO and Todd Harper, Cancer Council Victoria Chief Executive

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter
Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

The David and Goliath story of tobacco control is one that needs to be told to remind us of how a seemingly insurmountable public health challenge can be successfully tackled.

This week marks the 30th Anniversary of Quit Victoria (at Cancer Council Victoria) and is an opportune time to tell that story and reflect on how the lessons we’ve learnt in tackling tobacco can be applied to other public health concerns like alcohol and obesity.

The story begins in 1985 when Cancer Council Victoria established Quit to educate people about the harms of smoking and to advocate for legislative change to protect Victorians from tobacco – the leading preventable cause of death and disease.

When established, Quit had tiny budgets and was pitted against the global behemoth of the tobacco industry. Without a hint of remorse, the industry told the Australian public that nicotine was not addictive and that the harms of smoking were exaggerated. It was remarkable that despite their influence, only 32 per cent of Victorians smoked.

It was soon realised that if real headway was to be made against the industry’s seemingly infinite resources, Quit would need an adequate and ongoing level of funding.

In 1988, a very productive and effective partnership between VicHealth and Cancer Council Victoria commenced to fund Quit. For 27 years VicHealth has been a critical mainstay in ensuring dedicated funding to educate the Victorian public about the harms from tobacco, support people to quit smoking and conduct world-leading research. These investments were small compared to the global resources of the tobacco industry, but achieved spectacular results, driving smoking levels down to 12.6 per cent by 2013.

Quit, Cancer Council and VicHealth have not achieved this success alone. The Victorian Government and the Heart Foundation Victoria have also been critical long-term partners in the David and Goliath battle, as have our partners in local government, scientific, sports and arts organisations.

Today, we rightly celebrate our collective efforts in creating a healthier environment for smokers and non-smokers alike. Victorians can now enjoy a meal without breathing second-hand smoke, we can sit on a train without a cloud of smoke hanging overhead, our public buildings – schools, kindergartens, hospitals and police stations are all smokefree areas, and children can watch TV or go to a sporting event without being exposed to tobacco advertising.

Todd Harper
Todd Harper, Cancer Council Victoria Chief Executive

As we reflect on the blueprint Quit has provided to tackle public health problems, we mustn’t forget that 4500 Victorians still die every year from tobacco-caused disease. We are a long way off packing our bags and going home in the fight against Big Tobacco. We need to be committed to further reducing smoking, and we simply cannot accept that people with a serious mental illness are five times more likely to smoke and that around half of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community smokes. To effectively close the gap we need to maintain our commitment to proven and innovative strategies to reach disadvantaged groups – including those from low-income backgrounds. We need to maintain our commitment to plain packaging to prevent the tobacco industry from promoting cigarettes to a new generation of smokers.  We need to increase tax on tobacco to discourage people from starting to smoke in the first instance.  We need to extend smoking bans to ensure outdoor bars and restaurants are smokefree, and investigate other opportunities to build on our world-leading approach.

Today, as we reflect on the incredible success of Quit over the past 30 years, it’s timely to understand what lessons can be taken from this public health success and ask: how we can apply them to pressing issues like an escalating obesity crisis?

The first step should be sustained investment for public education campaigns.  

There is no doubt that televised anti-smoking campaigns have prompted countless Victorians smokers to quit and prevented thousands of young people from taking up smoking – a similar commitment to education campaigns could help reduce harm from alcohol and obesity.

The next lesson should be to build upon existing alcohol culture change initiatives being led by Victoria, and pursue policy interventions like bringing the junk food and alcohol industries to account, ending incessant junk food advertising during children's TV viewing times, or alcohol advertising that’s clearly targeting a younger demographic.

We also need to help people make healthy choices. For instance, mandatory kilojoule labelling on menus in fast food outlets, which is effective in helping people consume less kilojoules and an example of how we can empower consumers.  Recent obesity public education campaigns – such as the LiveLighter campaign, Rethink Sugary Drink and VicHealth’s H30 Challenge - are great examples which are making inroads. 

We need to use approaches proven to work, but also continue to push the boundaries in the same manner of Quit’s work over the past 30 years if we’re going to make similar gains with alcohol and obesity.

- Todd Harper and Jerril Rechter

For help to quit smoking, contact Quitline on 13 7848 or go to www.quit.org.au
Cancer information and support is available on 13 11 20 or at www.cancervic.org.au