Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, Press Conference - 23 April 2024

Read the transcript of Assistant Minister Kearney's press conference on World Health Summit, vaping legislation.

The Hon Ged Kearney MP
Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care

Media event date:
Date published:
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General public

SUBJECTS: World Health Summit, Vaping Legislation.
DR SANDRO DEMAIO, CEO VICHEALTH: My name is Dr Sandro Demaio, I'm the CEO of Vic Health. I'll just start by acknowledging traditional owners of the land, the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin nation and their elders’ past, present and emerging.
Well, we're here at the World Health Summit in Melbourne today as 1,250 global leaders come to discuss the most urgent and pressing health issues facing our region and of course our state and country. There is no more urgent health issue than the resurgence of big tobacco over the last few years as they push e-cigarettes to a new generation, hell bent on getting young Australians and young people across our region addicted to nicotine. These products are dangerous, they're harmful, they're addictive, and they're having a huge impact on the health of young Australians, young people across the Asia and the Pacific.
We are hearing stories this morning from young people, young people themselves, harrowing stories from young people themselves of the health harms, the harms to their social educational development, even harms to their bodies, their brains and their lungs and their heart. We need to be united as a region against big tobacco and against big vape. There is no more pressing issue for young people and for the health of young people. And that's what we're doing today. In the shadow of course, the world first legislation from the Australian Government showing our support standing shoulder by shoulder against the health harms of e-cigarettes and the resurgence of big tobacco.          
I'm now going to introduce Australia's Assistant Minister Ged Kearney, to say a few words.
Good morning everybody. It's wonderful to be here at the World Health Summit and particularly to have Ministers and health experts and advocacy people from right around the region talking about the dangers of vaping.
Australia is incredibly proud of the steps that we have taken to reduce this incredibly harmful substance that is affecting our young people. As you can see, I'm very pleased to have the regional director of the World Health Organization supporting the moves that the Australian Government is taking.
But also more importantly for me, we have some very amazing young people with us today. Young people who are prepared to stand up and say, “This is not what we want”. This is not what we want for our young people. I'm a grandma. I have six beautiful grandchildren and I am really very concerned about what is happening in this country and around the region and indeed around the world with respects to big tobacco, pushing harmful products onto our children.
Rest assured vaping is not safe. We know a single vape can contain around 200 different toxins. Absolutely harmful toxins that you would find in weed killer. And these products are being marketed to young children. There has been in Australia an uptake of nicotine in the youngest cohort from 18 to 24 young people. Let's be clear about that. When we have seen a decrease in the entire population- thanks to the strong action that Australia has taken in the past on plain packaging cigarettes  - we have seen for the first time nicotine addiction is on the rise for young people.
This is a very serious issue. I am really pleased to see that the region is taking this seriously. It's wonderful to have the World Health Organization on board with tackling this terrible scourge. And it is a scourge, particularly on our young people.
And I really want to put  a very strong plea to the Parliament of Australia. We need to pass the last tranche of this important legislation that will deal with this situation once and for all in Australia. We are very proud that Australia is world leading. We are very pleased that the region is taking this seriously and we are particularly pleased that the states are backing this in - thank you to Vic Health for organising this today. The states are working with the federal government to make this - banning e-cigarettes - a reality. So, thank you to everybody involved. Thank you to the World Health Organization for supporting this.  
DR DEMAIO: Thank you Assistant Minister Kearney. I'll now introduce our new regional director of the World Health Organization, Dr Saia Ma'u Piukala.
Dr Saia Ma'u Piukala, Regional Director for the Western Pacific, World Health Organization: Yeah, good morning and it's a pleasure to be here at the World Health Summit. The journalist, I think you play a very important role in informing the public about the painting of this vaping and as well as informing the elected leaders of the region. Today's call to action and we cannot call to action for people to come without you. And you are here today and thank you for joining us.
As you heard from the Assistant Minister, there are a few points that we want to make. Vaping is harmful. Vaping is addictive and there is there is no proven ways that vaping help with the cessation of tobacco smoking. So it is important to call on communities, leaders, national leaders and global leaders to  come together to have better health for our young children.
And I'm clear that the youth are, they are the one that are suffering. Some of them may be your children, your neighbour’s children, your colleagues, children taking a colourful vape. They don't know what they are. Inhaling multiple toxin that are harmful and very addictive.
We should all come together and make sure that the young people of today are the future of the region. We need them to be healthy. Thank you.
DR DEMAIO: Thank you. We’ll take some questions.
QUESTION: So you spoke before, you said, you know, young people are facing serious health, health outcomes as a result of vaping. Can you talk more specifically to that? What sort of health outcomes are?
DR DEMAIO: We're seeing a range of health risks emerging amongst young people. So first and foremost, we shouldn't underestimate the impacts of addiction. Nicotine is one of the most addictive products known to man. We know that when young people inhale it at very high doses, single e-cigarette containers can contain as much nicotine as six packets of cigarettes. It hits their brain very quickly. And we are hearing from young people across the state that they become addicted almost instantly. If they can't get through a single class, they can't get through a quarter of a football match, they can't get through a conversation and they can barely get to sleep.
The impacts of it on the developing brain, we know that the brain doesn't finish developing until your middle of your twenties. Nicotine, in particular, affects the frontal lobe. There's evidence that is starting to emerge that it affects things like cognition, reasoning, risk taking.
And when we're talking about young men, young women whose brains are developing in that decade, it's a huge concern.
Beyond addiction, we are seeing these products explode in the mouths of young people, burns a range of, you know, really concerning direct injuries. And then we are seeing the emerging evidence. So emerging evidence linking e-cigarettes to many of the signs that we saw with tobacco around, you know, cancer risk, heart risk and risks to the other internal organs.
So, these are not benign products, these are products that are highly addictive. They're designed to be addictive, they're designed to be alluring to young people. Flavors like fruit loops and milk unicorns on the packet and they come looking like a highlighter. You know, these are clearly being targeted at young people and the health risks are unprecedented.
QUESTION: And in the past few years, how far would you say that rise has been amongst young people, been vaping? Are there any stats you point to?
DR DEMAIO: Well, in just a few years we've got to a point where, you know, a huge proportion, almost one in three young people across Victoria, across Australia have used these products. We know that they're far more likely to go on to smoke cigarettes if they take these products up. We know that 18 to 24 year olds is the single biggest user group of these products. So it's not as though it's your 65-year-old truckies who have been smoking for 40 years that are using fruit loops and milk flavoured e-cigarettes with a unicorn on the packet. These, the tobacco industry is very clearly going after young people.
It's been highly effective and then combined with the weaponization of young people's data using the social space where parents, you know, let's be honest, have no power because of the way these social spaces are constructed. You know, they've been able to put these products in the faces of young people, make them incredibly alluring through, you know, platforms like TikTok and Instagram and then ultimately with one or two clicks, sell them out the back of a Camry opposite of a primary school. This is happening now across Australia and it's no surprise that we are seeing this huge surge in e-cigarette use among young people.
And it's why the legislation that is going to go to senate next week is so critically important. And we call on all sides of parliament to put politics aside and put the health of young people first.
QUESTION: And what are some of these critical reforms that do make up this legislation before the Senate?
DR DEMAIO: What has been announced last year by Minister Mark Butler and the Australian Government is world leading. It comes in a number of different stages. So the first stage last year was of course updating our 10-year-old tobacco advertising and plain packaging acts. You know, these were world leading in 2013 when they were announced under the leadership of then Health Minister, Nicola Roxon. It really created a shadow around the world, a pathway for other countries to follow. We were challenged at the World Trade Organization by the tobacco industry and won. And it gave the confidence to so many countries to take bold action and ultimately save millions of lives.
But 10 years later those laws needed to be updated. We obviously live in a digital world now. The billboard is no longer on the high street or the freeway, it's in our pocket. And so the advertising laws and the plain packaging laws needed to be updated - that has been done.
The stage two was implemented in January and stage three will be implemented hopefully very soon and passed by Senate. And what that will mean is that there are tighter border controls. We won't have this deluge of cheap addictive imports coming across our borders. And the only way to get a product - an e-cigarette - will be through your doctor with a prescription and of course a health check to make sure that you are otherwise healthy and they will only be available as a tobacco cessation tool. No colours, no flavours and not sold at the back of the Camry, opposite of a primary school.
QUESTION: Do you think that there is a lack of awareness too, among young people about how dangerous vaping is?
DR DEMAIO: We are being joined today by incredible young people from across Victoria who are willing to share their stories. And certainly when I speak to principals, community leaders and young people, one of the strong messages is that the young people don't understand the health harms. So we do need to do more. That's why together with Quit and the Cancer Council of Victoria last year we launched Australia's largest, Victoria's first anti-vaping mass media campaign. And that's why we're also empowering young people through this new campaign to share their voices, peer to peer and warn each other of the health harms.
We know that young people ultimately listen to young people, they listen to their friends, their classmates, their colleagues, and that's where they get health information. And so we are going to empower young people to share their stories and warn one another.
QUESTION: As well as targeting young people to take up vaping, tobacco companies and the vaping lobby are very much targeting public health people who support vaping restrictions. Is that deterring public health advocacy in this area and does there need to be some regulation? Is there something you can do around misinformation?
ASSISTANT MINISTER KEARNEY: I think the misinformation around it being a therapeutic good is real. The industry has long been saying that it's a product that will help people give up smoking. There's very little evidence around that. We know that the evidence is showing us that indeed it is getting people addicted to nicotine. Quite the opposite impact is happening across the country. However, we are still leaving that pathway available to general practitioners and to nurse practitioners and to health professionals who do see it as an option for their patients to give up smoking. You will still be able to get a prescription, but you won't be able to buy it from the corner store. You won't be able to buy it in a flavoured unicorn shaped vape. You will have to buy, pick it up from the pharmacist.
By and large, I think across the board, health professionals and health advocates are supportive of these reforms. In fact, I think they're screaming up.
QUESTION: And were there any messages out at the round table this morning for Australia with the Western Pacific region about what Australia can be doing to assist?
ASSISTANT MINISTER KEARNEY: It was wonderful to sit with our Western Pacific region colleagues and counterparts and a hear the impact of vaping in those countries. They too are experiencing large uptake of vaping, particularly from young people. They are tackling it in various ways that are evidence-based. We heard some countries like Singapore that have banned it. Other countries are working towards that through regulation.
The main message across the board was that from the whole region, that it is a serious problem, that vaping is addictive, that it is causing the uptake of smoking and increasing nicotine addiction. And it is something that we need to deal with. It is affecting our young people and across the region everybody has agreed that we need to do something about it. Thank you very much everybody for coming along today. I think we'll have to finish it there, but thank you.

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