Minister for Health and Aged Care – interview on ABC Radio Perth WA Mornings – 12 September 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Nadia Mitsopoulos about vaping.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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NADIA MITSOPOULOS, HOST: Minister, thank you so much for your time. Good morning.


MITSOPOULOS: What's the thinking behind banning all single use vapes? 

BUTLER: Our approach is much broader than just banning single use. We're banning all vapes that are being marketed for recreational use, in order to get them back to what the industry said was their original stated purpose, which was that they were supposed to be a therapeutic good to help very hardened smokers kick the habit.  

Instead, what we see is that they have become very widespread, being clearly very directly marketed to the youngest Australians. These are vapes that have unicorns on them, that are bubble gum flavoured, that are often disguised to look like a highlighter pen so kids can have them in their pencil case without getting caught by their teachers. It is extraordinary to gloss over the fact that this is a cynical marketing exercise by the tobacco industry to recruit a new generation of nicotine addicts.  

And the tragedy is it's working. The tragedy is it's working. The only cohort in the community where we're seeing smoking rates increase is amongst the youngest Australians. All the hard work that the community has done over the last several decades to drive down smoking rates and all of the death and the disability it causes, is starting to be turned back around by this insidious new product of vaping that was marketed to us as a therapeutic good and has become a very substantial cause of harm to our youngest Australians.   

MITSOPOULOS: How does it stop a black market which Dr Alex Wodak, who I was talking to, and a lot of people on the text line actually saying already exists?   

BUTLER: I heard Alex say that these vapes are imported illegally. The actual fact is that there is no import control regulation in place. My predecessor, the Coalition Health Minister Greg Hunt, to his credit, tried to put in place an import control that would try to stem the flow of these things coming in from overseas. And the regulation was only in effect for a few days before, unfortunately, he got rolled by his own party room because a whole lot of members of his party room were being lobbied by the sorts of groups that are in The Australian newspaper today who are saying this is actually, “oh, you've got to raise the white flag, it's too late, nothing we can do about this”. And then describe our measures, as I heard Alex call them, a “fear-based approach”. If there's fear at the moment – the fear I detect in the community is a fear from school communities and from parents who have seen this thing explode over the last three or four years. And Alex said that that's because of some measures that were put in place in 2021, well, that's complete rubbish. We've seen this explode right across the world. It didn't explode in Europe or the UK or the US or Canada because of some measure we put in place here in Australia.  

The simple fact of the matter is that with the best of intentions that Greg Hunt had in mind, the measures that were put in place in 2021 have failed. The border is completely open. We are being flooded with these things from overseas and we've got to have a comprehensive approach to it that stops them at the border, but also has on-the-ground policing of these vape stores and other stores that cynically, often deliberately, set themselves up down the road from a school because they know that is their target market. They know school kids are their target market. People my age – I'm in my 50s – we're not vaping. I think about one in 70 people of my age have vaped. One in four young teenagers have vaped. One in six high school kids have vaped. That is what this thing is directed towards.  

MITSOPOULOS: What tough border controls would you then have to put in place? 

BUTLER: I'm hoping to put in place an import regulation that would prohibit the import of these vapes... 

MITSOPOULOS: But then you'd have to increase security, right? 

BUTLER: And what we then have to do, obviously, is to resource Border Force, who maintain the integrity of our borders in order to do that. Now, we've recognised that, we've got resources set aside to do that. I'm in regular communication with my ministerial colleague, the Minister for Home Affairs, who has responsibility for this area. My department and the Therapeutic Goods Administration are working hand in glove with the Border Force to work strategies through to stop these things at the border.

I'm not naive enough to think that there's not going to be vapes that get through. They do not come in shipping containers with a big fat label on the side that says 'vapes'. There will be, I fear, organised crime that continues to try to get these things through the border, and as happens with illicit drugs, they will get through. But we have a responsibility to younger Australians to fight this thing and we are determined to fight them.  

Now, stopping at the border is only one part of the solution. What we then need is good policing on-the-ground, from our health authorities, from our law enforcement authorities, and that's why it's so important that I've got really strong, complete consensus of all of the state and territory governments here to do this. This is a whole-of-government approach, not just in the health portfolio, but across other portfolios and at state, territory and Commonwealth governments. Now this thing has become a very big problem very quickly and the best place to have started this was probably three or four years ago...

MITSOPOULOS: It feels like the horse has already bolted...

BUTLER: But I've got to say, that the second-best place is now. Having seen inaction over the last few years, we came to government, we looked at this closely, I talked to my state and territory colleagues, and we have been putting in place measures to make sure that we have a comprehensive response to this.   

MITSOPOULOS: Federal Health Minister Mark Butler with me. Does it mean under the proposal in this consultation paper that you've distributed, that if I have a prescription, am I still going to be allowed to import my own vape juice, if you like, which I can currently do?   

BUTLER: No. I'm proposing to close down the personal import scheme as well, because we think that has just become a bit of a rort for people to import a whole bunch of vapes and then on-sell them. The only way you're going to be able to legally import these things is with effectively approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration that you are importing a product that complies with the standards we've put in place.

So, say goodbye to the pink unicorns, the bubble gum flavours, the highly variable nicotine content. We don't know what's in so many of these things. We don't know what chemicals are in so many of them. They are causing very real harm today.

We only saw more evidence yesterday released by some universities and institutes in Sydney about the very real harm being caused through second and third hand exposure to the chemicals. These are very sticky chemicals that collect on clothing and on other surfaces and are being ingested in a second and third hand way by young people. And remember, these things contain up to 200 chemicals, some of which are the same you'll find in weedkiller, in nail polish remover. These are harmful products in and of themselves, but in addition to the direct harm they're causing, they're also being shown to be a gateway back into smoking.   

MITSOPOULOS: I'll leave it there. Appreciate your time.  

BUTLER: Thanks, Nadia. 

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