BUTT OUT: Bernie McKay was awarded   for his service to health, particularly the Quit smoking campaign.
BUTT OUT: Bernie McKay was awarded for his service to health, particularly the Quit smoking campaign. Contributed

Leading from the front to take on big tobacco

BERNIE McKay remembers well his fight against big tobacco: from tackling die hard political masters to the master of comedy himself Paul Hogan.

The former health bureaucrat - who headed the Commonwealth Department of Health under former Prime Minister Bob Hawke between 1984 and 1987 - was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) last week for his "distinguished service to public administration, particularly to the health sector”.

Mr McKay, who credits those who worked with him for his success, said it was his fight against smoking and big tobacco that really fired him up.

Mr McKay, who now lives in Terranora, and still consults on health and other matters around the world, began his fight against tobacco in the 1970s when he headed the North Coast regional health network in Lismore.

It was there he set up the first healthy lifestyle campaign, the main plank of which was its Quit Smoking campaign.

"We finished up in battles with the big tobacco companies,” Mr McKay said.

Over the next decade, Mr McKay spread his Quit smoking campaign across other state and Commonwealth jurisdictions, with smoking in Australia falling from about 46% to around 26% of the population during that period.

"The Quit campaign had a lot of impact, plus a lot of other stuff like money and it started to be come anti-social,” he said.

"It's quite funny when you speak to (young people) today, they just can't understand how things were.”

Mr McKay remembered lobbying federal ministers "through a fog of cigarette smoke” to support his Quit campaign.

"Two of the ministers threatened to walk out - both smokers of course,” he laughed.

Another time, en route to London, he saw the irony in sitting near Australian comedian Paul Hogan, made famous by his endorsement of Winfield cigarettes, while tackling legislation governing smoking in aeroplanes.

Today, Mr McKay sees the obesity epidemic and most notably the soft drink, alcohol and fast food industries, as the next big battle for healthy living proponents.



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