Minister for Health and Aged Care – press conference – 10 June 2024

Read the transcript from Minister Butler's press conference which covered the vaping and smoking campaigns, and avian flu.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

Media event date:
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MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: I'm really pleased to be joined this morning by Todd Harper from the Cancer Council Victoria. That branch of the Cancer Council has particular responsibilities for a range of quit support services. So I'll throw to Todd in due course, and also to Damian Ellwood who represents the parents organisations from our school system right across the country, who’ll say a few words about the impact that vaping is having on school communities and the concerns that parent groups have about this exploding public health menace particularly targeted at the youngest members of our community. We've known for many decades now that tobacco smoking, cigarette smoking is the biggest preventable cause of death and disability in Australia. We've performed really well in this country getting those daily smoking rates down from well over 50% several decades ago, to 30% in the 1990s and as low as around 10% or 11% today. But there is still much, much more to do. And the campaigns that I'm announcing today are focused on getting those rates down even further. But we're particularly concerned at the new public health menace that has exploded in recent years, and that is the issue of vaping, that's particularly prevalent among young members of our community, particularly teenagers and very young adults, but increasingly as well seen in primary school communities, as I've talked about now for a good 12 to 18 months.
We have legislation before the Parliament today, which will be debated in the Senate when we go back to Canberra in a couple of weeks, that seeks to ban the sale and the supply of these products that are so obviously targeted to the youngest members of our community, you just have to look at the products. They're brightly coloured, they're bubblegum flavoured, they often have cartoon characters on the front of them. And you then just have to look at where they're being sold: knowing that nine out of 10 vaping stores are deliberately located within walking distance of our schools.
I'm absolutely determined to drive the vaping industry out of this country, but I'm just as determined to help individual Australians quit the habit. That's why today we're launching a comprehensive suite of advertising campaigns and support services, to point people to where they can get support to quit the habit, but also to give them the information that they need to take that decision themselves. We're launching today four individual advertising campaigns, under the banner headline ‘Give Up For Good’. One of those campaigns will be a youth vaping campaign. The second will be a vaping campaign targeted at adults. There will then be the first population-wide anti-smoking campaign in more than a decade. And also, a campaign to quit smoking targeted particularly at First Nations communities.
The vaping campaign targeted at young Australians follows the first phase of our advertising attempts to prompt young Australians to give up the vapes. And that was a campaign led by social media influencers. I launched that in February and already we have almost 8 million views of the social media posts that have been posted by the influencers that we contracted with as a Commonwealth. There are more than 600,000 likes already recorded there. Now that campaign will continue and we'll evaluate it formally. But clearly that is starting to have an impact to present anti-vaping messages to young people who, for so long, have been swamped and inundated with pro-vaping messages on social media platforms.
These advertising campaigns are notable for a few reasons. The first is: this is the first Australian Government advertising campaign targeted against vaping. As I've said, we've run some social media campaigns, some states have run campaigns as well. But this has been a deeply researched campaign targeted at young Australians, to warn them of the dangers of vaping. The second, as I said, is that there's been a decade without any population-wide smoking campaigns. And we're determined to do that: to drive those smoking rates down further and reach that target we have in our National Tobacco Strategy of daily smoking rates getting down to 5% by the end of this decade. And thirdly this campaign is notable, because this is the first time the Australian Government will advertise on TikTok. Now this will be controversial for some, but we know, for better or for worse, that TikTok is a platform where many, many young Australians are getting their information. And I've said a couple of times before that I'm not willing to vacate a field where young Australians are getting so much of their information. We learned when we were launching the social media campaigns from influencers, which includes posts on TikTok, that there are around 18 billion posts on TikTok already with a pro-vaping message. There are thousands and thousands of influencers on Instagram, who regularly post pro-vaping messages. It is simply not responsible for government to continue to vacate an area where young Australians are getting so much of their information, particularly when so much of that information around vaping is pro-vaping, rather than anti-vaping.
We're also releasing today a number of resources that are really targeted at making sure that school communities, parents and carers have the information that they need to support their young one, their son, their daughter, or their students in the case of school communities, to give up vapes. This is something parents and school communities have been talking to governments about so much over the last few years, as vaping rates have exploded, and as Damien might say, become such a significant behavioural issue in schools: impacting learning behaviours, other behaviours, mental health, and so many other things for young Australians.
And finally, we're launching today a $30 million investment in new and expanded quit support services. Those services will be very familiar to Australians, they have been run by organisations like Cancer Council of Victoria for a long period of time. They have helped literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Australians to kick the deadly habit of smoking cigarettes. But we know there's more to do to go that last mile and stamping out smoking in Australia. But we know there are new challenges as well, with vaping and new populations, with the youngest members of our community now hooked on nicotine because of the strategy of Big Tobacco to lure them into nicotine addiction through vaping. So, this $30 million investment will expand those services and also build new services that are targeted particularly at young people, using new technology like the My QuitBuddy app, which is able to be accessed very, very easily by all Australians who have a smart device.
As I said at the outset, Australia has done really well on smoking, we have some of the best smoking reduction rates in the world. But there is still much to do. Still 2 million Australian adults smoke on a daily basis and that is doing enormous damage to their health and their life expectancy. And we have this new public health menace of vaping, which is so deliberately and cynically targeted by Big Tobacco at hooking a new generation onto nicotine addiction. And the tragedy is: it's working. About one in six high school students are vaping. About one in four very young adults, in their late teens and early 20s, are vaping as well. And we are determined to stamp it out. I might throw to Todd to say a few words and then to Damien, then I'm happy to take questions.
CANCER COUNCIL VICTORIA, CEO, TODD HARPER: Thank you very much Minister. I'm delighted to be here, at such a milestone event. With 20,000 deaths every year from smoking, 16 different cancers caused by smoking and the emerging menace of vaping, today's announcements are really timely. What I'm delighted about is the way that today's announcement is tackling two important opportunities. The first is to provide the motivation, the education, the encouragement for people to quit nicotine, whether it be tobacco or vaping. But secondly, to provide them with the tips, the tools, the support, the resources to improve their chances of quitting successfully. Today, with the launch of a new national digital quitting platform at we’ll have a range of tools through this platform, which has been successfully helping people quit for 40 years. The Quitline is a trusted brand, it's a trusted program that's been used, as Minister said, by hundreds of thousands over the last 40 years. But now, to combat these new challenges, we'll be providing a range of resources from that are relevant to a younger generation. They'll be able to seek advice and support through mediums such as WhatsApp, through Messenger, through web chat, through apps. They’ll be able to request callbacks to support them, to give them the tips, the tools that they need, to best have a chance of quitting nicotine.
We recognise the challenges that we face, and that's why today's announcements are so important. Today about 80% of people who call the Quitline under the age of 18, and about 50% of those who call the Quitline aged 18 to 24, report vaping in the previous month. Just a generation ago, that would have been unthinkable. But this is the emergence that we've seen in such a rapid period of time. It's distressing to report that we have received calls to our Quitline from children as young as 12. Children as young as 12, struggling with the effects of vaping addiction. It's heartbreaking. Imagine the situation that that presents for parents and loved ones. It's no surprise then that now we're getting calls from parents, teachers, nurses, siblings, desperate for information about how they can help loved ones and the people that they care for quit vaping. This is such an important opportunity.
This is an opportunity that we're delighted to participate in. It gives young people experiencing addiction, perhaps for the first time - imagine a young child experiencing addiction for the first time, wondering what they should do about it, where they can go to for help, “is this something that I can share with loved ones?” - so what we want to do is make sure that we're providing compassionate, empathetic support for all young people and platforms that they feel comfortable with, and ensure that they have the tools at their disposal and the encouragement that they need to successfully quit. We're delighted to be part of this opportunity. It's an opportunity that we absolutely must take, to ensure that we are protecting the health of current and future generations. Thank you very much.
AUSTRALIAN COUNCIL OF STATE SCHOOLS ORGANISATIONS, PRESIDENT, DAMIEN ELLWOOD: Thank you, Minister. Thank you, Todd. My comments definitely support what's been said before. A growing concern across schools in the country are about the rapid uptake and normalisation of vaping by teens and children under the age of 18. In public toilet blocks, in classrooms, this is causing significant disruption in schools. As said before, the vapes marketing, flavours, and packaging and recent concealments are very appealing for our youth. You can now buy vapes that look like stationary and that's specifically designed for children to hide the vapes from the adults in their life. It's quite concerning. Vapes are addictive and even when the vapes indicate that there's no nicotine in them, they almost invariably do include very high levels of nicotine. So they're addictive. Vapes are readily available for teens and children under the age of 18. And I'm concerned that they also contain chemicals that are very harmful and hazardous for anyone.
ACCSO ran a recent survey in September about vaping. 97% of respondents indicated concern about the health risks from vaping. 57% of parents and carers indicated a high level of concern specifically about the damage that their children and their teens in their care were experiencing because of vapes. A number of health risks were raised: there was concern about respiratory and heart disease. There was a lot of concern about dependency and addiction, and also wellbeing concerns. And that feeds back into disruption within schools. Children who are addicted might be agitated or get headaches when they don't have access to the nicotine. And this isn't a favourable mental state for anyone to learn.
Parents indicated they wanted a number of things. They wanted further research on the risks associated with vaping. They wanted an education health campaign and in particular, they wanted good information to have confident conversations with their children and teens. Parents and carers also supported further restrictions on the availability of vapes. So on that basis, ACCSO strongly supports the suite of initiatives that government has in place to restrict the availability of vapes and to reduce the dependence on smoking. ACCSO is urging all Senators to support the Bill before Parliament to further restrict the availability of vapes. ACCSO welcomes the additional targeted investment to assist teens and children under the age of 18 to quit smoking and vaping. This is very important. ACCSO commends the ‘Give Up For Good’ campaign, noting that it focuses on the surprise that young people might experience when they maybe take up vaping socially or as a support mechanism, and then quickly become addicted and don't know what to do. I think that's a good message. And it highlights that many young people who vape wish that they hadn't started. ACCSO also supports and notes that the Government has provided advice to teachers, parents and carers about how to have confident conversations with their teams. I encourage all adults to have conversations with their children and teens about the health risks of vaping. And if needed, please seek assistance and Todd has spoken about those supports before. We appreciate the leadership shown by Government to present initiatives both to reduce the supply and the demand for vaping and cigarettes. These are important first steps and I think as a community, we can work together to protect our youth from vaping and smoking. Thank you.
JOURNALIST: Damien, are there practical measures that teachers and are wanting to do to stop vaping in these toilet blocks and in classrooms?
ELLWOOD: Yes, but it is a struggle. Many schools have had problems where children are vaping in bathrooms. Some schools have got teachers in bathrooms, some schools have tried to close bathrooms with, you know, problematic results: children need access to toilets. Teachers and principals have confiscated vapes, have made it clear that it's against school rules to vape. But I guess one of the concerns has been that once those conversations have occurred, there haven't really been supports in place to assist children and teens to stop vaping and smoking. So the announcement today, the information that Todd provided, I think is really, really helpful.
JOURNALIST: So does it need - the only way we can stop this in our schools is if we stop it coming through our borders and into our stores?
ELLWOOD: So I'd say that maybe two things to that: vapes are readily available to people over the age of 18. So the current restrictions are not sufficient. And I guess the other thing is that vaping is now a pathway to smoking, which is a problem. I think the Government is focused on both reducing the supply and the demand for vapes. And I think that's the right approach. But I think that, for the media announcement today, this focus on reducing the demand for vaping is really, really critical.
JOURNALIST: Minister, the Nationals say that they think that there's value in legalising vaping and taxing it. Why is the government not chosen that step?
BUTLER: We're not willing to raise the white flag on the health of young Australians. The only groups who support regulating and essentially accepting this as a legitimate market in Australia are, firstly, the National Party and then business groups that are making a profit out of this public health menace. Look at everyone, whether it's school communities, public health groups, parent groups, they're all saying there is an opportunity now to stamp out this public health menace. Young Australians need support while that is happening, because we're not willing to stand by and say another generation recruited to nicotine addiction.
JOURNALIST: We talked earlier about there'd been data to suggest that people are using vapes as a gateway to begin smoking. What about a gateway to stop smoking, is there any data to suggest that?
BUTLER: The data about vaping or e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool is, frankly, still pretty limited around the world. But that's how Big Tobacco presented this new device when it was first introduced: it was presented as a therapeutic good that would help hardened smokers kick the habit. It was never presented as a recreational product, particularly not one that would be targeted at younger members of - not just Australia, but communities across the world. What we're doing through legislation in front of the Parliament right now is to preserve this product as a therapeutic good. If a doctor, nurse practitioner comes to the view along with their patient that this is an opportunity for them to kick the habit of cigarette smoking, usually after decades of smoking cigarettes, then that will still be available to them. But what we're not willing to do is to continue to stand by and see this recreational product sold to our kids, marketed so deliberately to our kids. So it will still be there as a therapeutic product, we're determined to stamp it out as a recreational product that is essentially designed to recruit young people to nicotine addiction.
JOURNALIST: There are already new products that are starting to rear its head in a similar way: nicotine pouches, again marketed as a therapeutic good, as a way to stop yourself from wanting to smoke. Are you not worried that by the stamping out vaping, that it could just bring a rise to the next product waiting to fill its place?
BUTLER: Look I don't underestimate Big Tobacco. Whenever there's been an attempt to regulate Big Tobacco over decades, they refuse to lie down and they've come up with different, innovative ways of hooking people to their deadly products. And so I've been around long enough to know that even if we're successful with this very clear, comprehensive plan to stamp out vaping, Big Tobacco will come back with other products. We're seeing that through snus, the nicotine pouches that you keep between your lip and your gum. We're asking for advice about how to deal with that. That's emerged only very recently here in Australia, but it's been more common in Europe for some time. So you know, I'm not naive enough to think that Big Tobacco simply going to lie down after this campaign to stamp out vaping. We need to remain vigilant, we need to recognise that this is a very well-resourced, cynical industry that makes huge profits out of a product that, as I said, is the biggest cause of preventable death and disability in the country. Until it's wiped out entirely, we have to remain vigilant.
JOURNALIST: Minister, why don’t these ads show any of the health implications of vaping?
BUTLER: If you look at some of the ads, they are very clear on health harms. The exact nature of the ad that's targeted at young people around vaping, though, was very carefully researched. And I'm very confident hits the mark. After reading the research and being presented with the research from agencies that thought very carefully and talked to young people about what messages would resonate with them, I'm confident this is the right message. As Damien, I think, was saying: young people are often quite shocked if they start vaping, because of a bit of peer group pressure or it seems to be a bit of fun. They're shocked by the time they realise that they're addicted, they're really struggling with this. And that is the focus of these ads. I think they're very, very powerful. They'll run over the course of this year. They'll then be evaluated to see how they perform. But I think they're very powerful, I'm confident they've been deeply researched. We've funded campaigns for smoking and for vaping for four years. So this is something we are determined to do, on a long term basis, to stamp out this public health menace. And as campaigns are evaluated, if there's the need to adjust them, we'll do that.
JOURNALIST: Previous anti-smoking ads, though, have taken quite graphic approach. Did you find they maybe weren't as effective as originally thought?
BUTLER: I think if you look at the adult smoking ad, it is still very powerful. It hits very hard and is pretty consistent with health harms messaging that we've seen in previous tobacco ads. I also just remind people that just before Christmas, we passed laws in the federal Parliament to renew or reinvigorate the tobacco controls. So new dissuasive messaging, including on individual cigarette sticks – we’ll I think be only the second country in the world to do that - new plain packaging regulations to ensure that some of the very graphic images on the front of cigarette packs are updated. There had been a bit of fatigue creeping in, we understood, with some of the old imagery. So we do recognise the need to reinvigorate that traditional fight in the cigarette space, the former government did essentially nothing over the course of those nine long years. So I was very pleased we were able to pass those laws in the Parliament last year and now they'll start taking effect this year.
JOURNALIST: What kind of reduction do you want to see, to consider this campaign success?
BUTLER: I want to see a real turnaround over the course of this year. This is a campaign that is taking place at the same time we are really trying to shut down the supply of vapes, particularly around school communities. As you know, the import of disposable vapes became illegal on the 1st of January. Since then, authorities, the Border Force and the Therapeutic Goods Administration in just a few months have seized almost 2 million disposable vapes. Anecdotally, we hear that that means there is a real problem of supply in some parts of Australia: stores are having trouble getting their hands on them. That's exactly the effect that I was hoping for: to start to choke off the supply. If the Parliament sees fit to pass the laws that I've introduced into the Parliament and will be debated in the Senate in the coming few weeks, the sale and the supply of vapes - other than that therapeutic purpose that I talked about earlier - the sale, the supply, the commercial possession of vapes will also become illegal on the 1st of July with very substantial penalties. So, as I think Damien was saying, the importance of getting the supply shut down, while we also support individual Australians, particularly young Australians, who are grappling with addiction for the first time in their lives, how we help them quit, really reflects the importance of having this comprehensive approach.
JOURNALIST: Minister, will your new vape laws likely pass in time for the July 1 start date? Have you secured the numbers?
BUTLER: We've had some really good, productive discussions with with Members of Parliament right across the political spectrum. As I think has been recognised, the National Party opted out of this debate very early on. It's backing the position of the industry, the vaping industry and its retailers. But everyone else has engaged with us in a really constructive, thoughtful way. I think they're hearing from their constituents - no matter where you live in Australia, not matter your political colour - they're hearing from their constituents just how concerned parents are, school communities are, and young people are as well increasingly, about the harm that vaping is causing them. So I'm still quietly confident we'll be able to get these laws through when we return to Parliament. And if we're able to do that, we will make the 1st July date.
JOURNALIST: There are only 10 posts made as part of the previous anti vaping influencer campaign. Did you think that the taxpayers got their value for money out of that?
BUTLER: As I've said, my advice was there were almost 8 million views of those social media influencer posts, there are more than 600,000 likes. This is the space that young people are getting their information from, frankly. Those are the people young people are listening to you, not me so much, unfortunately. They're listening to young influencers on the social media platforms that they use almost every day, that's TikTok, that's a range of others as well. So we'll evaluate that campaign when it starts to run its course. But I have to say those early data are very, very reassuring to me that we hit the mark.
JOURNALIST: Minister, can you shed light on why part of this campaign is specifically targeted at Indigenous communities?
BUTLER: Indigenous Australians, tragically, have much higher cigarette smoking rates than the broader community - much, much higher rates. And so, for some time it's been recognised that there is a public health need to target messages and support services particularly into Indigenous communities. That's why last year we refunded and expanded the Tackling Indigenous Smoking program, which has been running for many years. It's traditionally been focused, obviously, on cigarette smoking, but it expanded its remit to recognise that young Indigenous Australians are increasingly turning to vapes, as well. As for the advertising campaign, it has been the position for some time to focus, particularly, advertising campaigns in this area towards Indigenous Australians. And we carefully researched that message as well. And so you'll see those ads reflecting the research that we got about the messages that work for Indigenous Australians. But the smoking rates in Indigenous Australia are far too high. And part of the National Tobacco Strategy is to get those rates down considerably, as well. We've done well in the general community, but there's still far too high among Indigenous Australians and we as a government have a responsibility to support Indigenous Australians kicking the habit.
JOURNALIST: Minister, is the advertising campaign running until December starting with young people and do we have pencilled in dates when the other streams of advertising are going to drop throughout the year?
BUTLER: All four campaigns are being launched today. So there is the youth vaping campaign, which I think will be of most interest to members of the community, because it is new. It's the first time the Australian Government has done this sort of an advertising campaign around vaping. It is using, for example, TikTok for the first time. So it will probably get the greatest level of interest. But there are also adult vaping campaigns that are being launched today. Adult vaping is much rarer, but it's not non-existent, so we do also want to send messages to adults about how they can quit a habit, if they've got one recently, of vapes. There's a traditional population-wide smoking campaign that's been launched today. It's very hard hitting. And I encourage people to have a look at that. And we want that to keep driving down those rates of adult daily smoking. And as I said in response to the last question, there is a specific First Nations smoking ad targeted at adults in that community as well.
JOURNALIST: What guarantees can you provide Australia will still meet its 2030 climate target under the Paris Agreement?
BUTLER: I know the Prime Minister has addressed this only earlier today, very recently. But the emissions projections that were released in December - that we that we undertook to release every year, so we were fully transparent about these things - show that we're on track. And that was just based on policy in place in December, we've added to those policies already, not even halfway through 2024. So we're very confident we're on track. And that was the commitment we made to the Australian people. It's also the commitment that, essentially, the Government has made to the business community that is investing huge amounts of money into the transition to clean energy, not just here in Australia, but around the world. And that's why Australia sticking to these five yearly targets is just so important. It's obviously important to get our emissions down and to prevent a very serious climate crisis. But importantly, it underpins the investment we need to secure our jobs, future and economic prosperity into the future. That's why the Liberal Party's decision that they've announced over the last couple of days to walk away from those five yearly emissions reduction targets is such a devastating blow to climate policy certainty, but also investment certainty.
JOURNALIST: Minister, can I just ask you about the bird flu and the rising amount of infections in farms in Victoria? It's already impacting egg supply at supermarkets like Coles. Is there a risk to the community?
BUTLER: We're monitoring this very closely, of course. This is largely being monitored by primary industry portfolios managed by the Victorian Government, but there's very close communication between Victoria and the Commonwealth. At the moment, as I understand it, there are five farms in Victoria impacted by this. But we know that there's always a risk that it will spread, which is why the good management of these outbreaks by Victoria is reassuring and just so important. I will say that there are there is a strain of avian flu or bird flu, a strain or variant of H5N1 that has spread really through pretty much every other continent around the world, over recent months, except Australia. It is causing very significant disruption across the world. There have been some cases of crossover into human infection. There has not been a case of infection here in Australia, although there has been a young person who returned to Australia from another country earlier this year with an infection. From human health portfolios, we're monitoring the avian flu spread around the world as well as instances here in Australia very, very closely. Having talked to my counterparts over the last couple of weeks around the world, this is something that health portfolios right around the world are monitoring very closely. As for the disruption to egg supply right now in Australia, out of Victoria, I understand that this is projected to be very short term. We obviously want customers of the retailers that are putting in place these temporary restrictions to behave with respect to each other. And I'm very confident that we'll manage, we'll get through this. Thanks, everyone.

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