Minister for Health and Aged Care – interview on Sky News AM Agenda – 14 September 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Laura Jayes about tobacco control legislation being introduced into Parliament.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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LAURA JAYES, HOST: Joining me live now is the Health Minister, Mark Butler. Thanks so much for your time. Pretty grim way to end the show, but an important issue that you know I'm very passionate about. But Minister Butler, we had an announcement from the federal government months ago about cracking down on vaping in particular, are these new suites of measures an admission that hasn't really made a dent?  

MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: No, we have to do both, Laura. What we've confronted really is a situation where there's been no major tobacco control reform for 12 years. People will remember back in 2011, we introduced the world's first plain packaging legislation under Nicola Roxon – led the world, had to defend a range of pieces of litigation from the tobacco industry, but really won that case.

And since then several dozen countries have followed our lead and put in place plain packaging legislation. The challenge has been that since then nothing has happened here in Australia at least, and other countries have started to lead in next generation tobacco control reform. Meanwhile, here in Australia the industry has innovated; it's found very clever marketing strategies to get around the intent of the plain packaging legislation more than a decade ago. And as a result, we're simply not on track to meet the targets set out in the National Tobacco Strategy to continue driving those smoking rates down.

So, yes, there's a very serious public health challenge with vapes, but we can't forget the traditional challenge of driving down tobacco use as well.   

JAYES: Sure. But with the vapes, I mean, we're going to see plain packaging there, and how do you actually do it, given that most of these vapes are illegal?  

BUTLER: We've got to shut them down at the border is the first thing...

JAYES: Is that working? 

BUTLER: ...and I've said publicly that I intend to have an import control regulation put in place by the end of this year. No, at the moment, the border is completely open. To his very great credit, my predecessor, Greg Hunt, tried to put an import control in place, but it only lasted a few days before he was rolled by his own party room a few years ago.

Since then, we only had border controls in place for several days, they've been completely open borders ever since, and we've just had waves of these vapes coming in, very deliberately targeted at kids. They've got pink unicorns on them, they're bubble gum flavoured. They're not anywhere near the case that we were sold – and countries around the world were sold – that this would be a smoking cessation tool for hardened smokers.  

JAYES: No, the kids are taking them up. Minister, sorry, I’m sorry to interrupt you because we are really tight for time. I wanted to point out that I had a vascular surgeon on this show this week, who in Western Sydney is going around and basically making notes for authorities where illegal vapes are being sold because he is so desperate to do something about this. There doesn't seem to be any policing. And the explosion of vapes that we spoke about just a couple of months ago is exploding further – there's another eruption.   

BUTLER: Yeah, I saw that story, a terrific effort by that surgeon in Sydney. But we also seeing stories pretty regularly of state governments doing blitzes on vaping stores. But they tell us, I think justifiably, they need the borders shut. So, we need this to be a comprehensive approach at both levels of government: states policing this stuff on the ground, really starting to crack down on these vape stores that cynically are often deliberately locating themselves down the road from schools because they recognise that's their target market.

While at a Commonwealth level we're cracking down on the border as well. We've been working very closely with state and territory governments over the last few months to get that regulatory framework right. We know from experience that it's likely to be fought by industry, so it's got to be tight without loopholes. As I said, the first wave of that will be the import controls which I aim to put in place by the end of this year, but then that will have to be followed up by policing on the ground, by state and territory governments. They understand that and they're up for that challenge.   

JAYES: Mark Butler, great to get you – squeeze you – into the program in the last couple of moments. It is an important issue. We'll check in with you in the next couple of months. Thanks so much.   

BUTLER: Thanks, Laura.   

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