Minister for Health and Aged Care – interview on ABC News Breakfast – 13 September 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Michael Rowland about tobacco control legislation being introduced into Parliament, and the Voice.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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HOST, MICHAEL ROWLAND:  The federal government is this morning announcing a new generation of tobacco control legislation. If successful, the laws would include new restrictions on tobacco, packaging and additives, while also bringing vapes under advertising controls Federal Health Minister Mark Butler joins us now from Parliament House. Minister, very good morning to you.


ROWLAND: So tell us about these new measures and what you hope to achieve from them.

BUTLER: Today, more than 50 Australian families will lose a loved one to tobacco, and the same tomorrow and the day after and the day after that. Which reminds us that, in spite of all the enormous progress over the last 50 years or so in tobacco control, the fight against Big Tobacco is just not finished.

Today, I'll be introducing the first suite of major reforms in more than 12 years into the Parliament. People might remember 12 years ago we led the world with our plain packaging reforms that have since been followed by dozens of countries around the world. But frankly, we're now lagging international best practice. Leaders are now countries like Canada and New Zealand. And as a result, we're advised we're not currently on track to meet our targets for smoking reduction over the course of this decade. And the reason why, essentially, is Big Tobacco has adapted. They've innovated. They've been clever and cunning about getting around the intent of the plain packaging reforms with new ways to make their product seem appealing or even cool, particularly to young Australians. And we're determined to take on all of those new marketing tactics and stamp them out.

ROWLAND: So can we expect to see, for instance, even more graphic warnings on cigarette packs?

BUTLER: We need to update the graphic warnings that the population, I'm advised, has become largely desensitised to some of the warnings that were very shocking 12 years ago. But the industry has also changed the look of their cigarettes and they've added flavours and additives like menthol 'bombs', which means that as you smoke your cigarette, you get a burst of minty freshness because there's a menthol capsule in there. We want to stamp that out. The look of cigarettes is very different today. The so-called 'Vogues' that are very long, slim, bright white cigarettes that are deliberately designed to look good on your Instagram shot. We're going to stamp those out as well. These are all very evidence-based measures. We've looked across the world. We've consulted very widely about these, and we're confident that this will get us back on track for our National Tobacco Strategy to keep driving down those rates of smoking even further.

ROWLAND: I want to talk about vapes. You're hoping to bring them under advertising controls and restrictions as well. How do you plan on going about that?

BUTLER: This is a bit of a loophole, essentially. There are strong bans on advertising cigarettes, which your viewers will be very familiar with. They've been in place for a long time, but there is a loophole for e-cigarettes we want to close. The bigger challenge really for vapes or e-cigarettes is to stop the rampant supply of them from overseas. And I've been working very closely with state and territory Health Ministers to have a comprehensive approach to that. So we'll put in place import controls by the end of the year, I hope, to stop the open flow of vapes coming into this country. But also, we'll be working closely with state and territory colleagues to police the supply of vapes, particularly to young people, but broadly across the population on-the-ground, shutting down all of these vape stores and shutting the supply through convenience stores as well.

ROWLAND: Vapes, as you know, are a big and increasing problem, especially for young people. You mentioned all those measures, Minister. Are you worried, though, it's taking much longer than it needs to bring vaping under control?

BUTLER: We're determined to get it right. And again, I think we really are leading the world, in this respect. Only over the last week France has expressly followed Australia's lead. They said Australia is leading, they intend to follow. The UK, over the last 24 hours, it's reported that they intend to follow Australia's lead, again expressly referencing the measures that we've announced. This will take a bit of time. We're determined to get it right. I'm confident we can now do it through a single piece of legislation through the Commonwealth Parliament. That's important because previously we were facing the prospect of having to get legislation through every single parliament in the country, which is obviously a very long, difficult process. We know that sometimes when we put these measures in place, particularly when they're world leading, that the industry arks up, the industry takes legal action. So we're determined to get this right. But I can't overstate the concern that I know parents and school communities have about this new public health menace of vaping. It's deliberately designed to recruit a new generation to nicotine addiction and threatens really to unravel all of the hard work of the last 50 years in dealing with such a public health menace.

ROWLAND: On the Voice, more argument on that this week. You would have seen prominent Yes campaigner Marcia Langton at a forum in WA said, in her view, those putting forward the No case, the No campaigners, in her view, are motivated by, quote, base racism and sheer stupidity. Do you agree?

BUTLER: I think there's been a bit of misrepresentation about who the target of Professor Langton's comments were...

ROWLAND: And we have clarified that the target is the No campaigners.

BUTLER: It’s very clear she was referencing some of, frankly, the appalling material being put into letterboxes, being put on social media – and frankly – on the front page of the Channel Nine newspapers yesterday, Michael, the strategy of these No campaigners was laid out in full detail. They said expressly when talking to volunteers, use 'fear over fact'. They said, 'don't identify yourself as No campaigners'. And they encouraged the volunteers to start raising, frankly, red herrings like compensation, reparations – the same hoary old chestnuts we've heard for decades, whenever there's a proposition around Reconciliation put to the Australian people or to Parliament.

ROWLAND: And we heard from your colleague, the Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, earlier this hour calling out misinformation. There's plenty of that around. But I'll ask the question again, do you agree with Marcia Langton that No campaigners are motivated by base racism?

BUTLER: What I want to do is echo what Linda Burney said in the Parliament yesterday. This needs to be a respectful debate right across the spectrum of views about the questions that are put before the Australian people. And I just want to echo what Linda Burney, I think very wisely, said to the Parliament yesterday. But some of the division, some of the appalling material that is being peddled by the No campaign does need to be called out and I think Peter Dutton needs to be held accountable for some of it as well.

ROWLAND: But called out with language used by Marcia Langton? I mean it's not exactly the way to go about winning hearts and minds, is it?

BUTLER: What I've said is, to echo what Linda Burney said yesterday: we all need to be careful whether we're on the Yes campaign or the No campaign side. Whatever your view about the question before the Australian people, this needs to be a respectful campaign. And frankly, some of the material being put about by the No campaign is a long way from respectful.

ROWLAND: Health Minister Mark Butler, appreciate your time this morning.

BUTLER: Thanks for joining us. Thanks, Michael.

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