Minister for Health and Aged Care - press conference - 21 March 2024

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's press conference on world-leading vaping legislation introduced to Parliament.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Vapes and e-cigarettes were sold to the Australian community and to governments right around the world as a therapeutic product that would be used to help hardened smokers kick the habit, just like other nicotine replacement therapies that people are perhaps more familiar with, like gum and spray, lozenges, and the like. It was never sold to us, when it was brought to this country, as a recreational product, and particularly not one that would ultimately be marketed and targeted particularly at young people. But we now know that's what it is. You just have to look at the products themselves to understand that they're brightly coloured, they've often got cartoon images on the front of them, they're bubble gum flavoured, they're often disguised to be able to be hidden in pencil cases looking like a highlighter pen or USB. And you also only have to look at where the vape stores are setting themselves up: 9 out of 10 of them are within walking distance of schools, because they know that's really their target market.

This has become, quite clearly and I think without any doubt, an insidious product promoted by Big Tobacco to recruit a whole new generation to nicotine addiction. And the tragedy is: it's working. About 1 in 6 high school students are vaping. About 1 in 4 very young adults in Australia are vaping. That rate has increased by about 400% since the last study done before COVID. And, in and of itself, vaping is seriously harmful. There are about 200 chemicals being ingested into young lungs, some of the chemicals used to put together weed killer, nail polish remover, chemicals used to embalm dead bodies. We know from the Australian Dental Association that they've seen an alarming increase in the rate of Black Gum disease between 12 and 15 year olds, which they attach to the increase in rates of vaping. School communities, parents' groups are telling us right across the country that vaping is now the number one behavioural issue in schools, impacting learning behaviour and impacting the mental health of the youngest Australians.

And only over the last 24 hours, research has been published in the UK on the front page of The Times newspaper and published in the Cancer Research Journal, demonstrating that there is now some evidence that DNA in cheek cells among vapers, is starting to demonstrate the same changes that has been seen for many years in the DNA cells of smokers, and also associated with lung cancer. We know that vapers are about three times more likely to take up cigarettes than non-vapers. And we must remember, at the end of the day, that is the objective of Big Tobacco. And again, tragically, it is working. And we are determined to stamp this public health menace out.

Of course, the best time to have done this would have been five years ago. But the second-best time is right now, because I fear that five years from now, 10 years from now, if action has not been taken by this Parliament, it will be immeasurably more difficult to wind this thing back and to protect the public health of our youngest Australians.  

We've already been acting. On the 1st of January we put in place an import ban on disposable vapes and increased the resources to the Australian Border Force and to the TGA – the Therapeutic Goods Administration – to enforce that ban. And already, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of now illegal vapes have been seized by those authorities on the border. 

The laws I introduced to the Parliament today, add to those import bans by outlawing specifically the sale, the supply, the commercial possession, and the advertising, as well as the manufacturer of vapes in this country other than a very specific therapeutic pathway that would continue to be available. We're not seeking to punish users here. These laws very obviously, very clearly, go after the sellers, the suppliers, and ultimately potentially those who would seek to manufacture vapes in this country. 

We are serious about this crackdown, which is why the penalties that are contained in this Bill are significant. The breach of these provisions, particularly in relation to the supply, manufacture, and import of vapes, include terms of imprisonment of up to seven years and fines up to $2.2 million. Commercial possession of vapes will also attract offences including terms of imprisonment and substantial fines as well.

This is a huge opportunity for our Parliament to do something meaningful and lasting for the health of young Australians. These are world leading reforms. When I announced them, Australia was a little further ahead of the pack than is the case today. In the last 24 or 36 hours, New Zealand has announced that they will be proceeding with a total ban on disposable vapes. And today, UK time, the UK Parliament will also be voting on a total ban on disposable vapes in that jurisdiction, as well.

But Australia has always been at the vanguard of tobacco control reform, going back to 50 years, when the Whitlam government first introduced advertising restrictions on tobacco. Or as more recently as 10 years, when Nicola Roxon introduced the world leading plain packaging legislation.

I really urge my Parliamentary colleagues to consider support for this Bill. We know it is a significant change. We know it will be hard fought. Every substantial advance in tobacco control over the last five decades has been fought hard by those who profit from this industry, whether it's Big Tobacco itself, or some of the retailers who are also out there, urging us to raise the white flag and simply accept vapes as part of the Australian way of life. I don't think we can do that. I think we've got a responsibility to protect the public health of our youngest members of the community. Young Australians deserve our support on this. I look forward to working with my Parliamentary colleagues across the aisle and on the crossbench in the House and in the Senate to see these landmark reforms passed in coming months.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Minister you are imploring your parliamentary colleagues to back these changes. The Nationals are developing their own “tax and regulate” scheme. I think Peter Dutton said the Liberals are leaning more towards like wanting to treat vapes like tobacco. The Greens also raised some issues around prohibition rather than harm minimisation and that sort of thing. Could you take us through why you haven't explored the “tax and regulate” system, and if you are concerned that this simply might not have the required support in the Senate, the Liberals, Nationals and the Greens are raising issues?

BUTLER: First of all, let me deal with this prohibition language. This is not a Bill to prohibit the use of vapes, any more than the way in which we regulate codeine is a prohibition on codeine. It is very clear: this was presented to the Australian community and other communities around the world as a therapeutic good and not a recreational product, particularly not one targeted at young people. It was presented as a therapeutic good. And these laws return it to that, return it to the therapeutic pathway that would still allow patients to access therapeutic vapes through a pharmacy, on prescription by a doctor or nurse practitioner, in the same way they can access a whole range of other therapeutic goods.

So, this is not prohibition, any more than we've prohibited the use of codeine, or any other regulated drug in this country. I know that the tobacco industry lobbyists will be fighting these reforms hard. I know the National Party continues to take donations and meet regularly with the tobacco industry. And I don't hold out much hope to getting the support of David Littleproud and the National Party on this. But I do urge other parties, particularly the Liberal Party and Mr Dutton to consider these reforms carefully.

We have consulted widely and deeply over the last 12 to 18 months, and received hundreds and hundreds of submissions, indeed, pleas from parent groups and school communities to shut this thing down. They are deeply concerned and alarmed at what it is doing to their young people. And alarmed at how quickly this thing has, frankly, got under the radar of governments right across the world. I am hopeful that as the Liberal Party, the Greens Party, and crossbenchers consider these reforms and go out and talk to their own community, in schools, their public health communities, that they will see the sense of this.

And I think as they look across the world as well, they will see governments starting to move far more in this direction that perhaps they might have been even 6 or 12 months ago. We are not going to adopt a “tax and regulate” agenda that would simply raise the white flag on something that poses a very serious public health risk to the youngest members of our community with one objective in mind for Big Tobacco, and that is to recruit them to nicotine addiction and smoking.

JOURNALIST: To follow up on that good example that it’s not prohibition as much as codeine is prohibited. Have you had that discussion with the Greens and were they receptive to that point?

BUTLER: I wanted to present the Bill. I don't think anyone will have been under any illusions about my intentions and the Government's intentions now for probably 15 or 18 months. I think it was late 2022 when I started to announce our intentions here. I think it's now a great opportunity for all Members of Parliament, Senators, to look at the legislation that we've tabled. I've offered departmental briefings so that they can get a dispassionate view from health officials and the medicines experts in the Therapeutic Goods Administration about the impact of this legislation. And then I look forward to a really robust, strong debate about this. This is a really important piece of legislation, it shouldn't just be rushed through, we want to have a meaningful debate about this.

JOURNALIST: What's the timeframe that you're going to say: “have you considered it now and where are you at?” What are we expecting?

BUTLER: We'd like to see this legislation in place to allow a 1 July start date. So, we've now got a few months where we can consider this. I look forward to some meaningful discussions across the Parliament. Obviously with the Greens Party, which I think was the one who you mentioned, but also with crossbenchers and, I hope, with the Liberal Party and Peter Dutton as well. I mean, he's got a long history, in this. He was the Shadow Health Minister when we put in place our plain packaging reforms. Frankly, it took him a while to get there with that. But after a long discussion, ultimately, the then opposition led by Tony Abbott and with Peter Dutton as the Shadow Health Minister did support those reforms. Now, I don't necessarily expect him to stand up today and say we've got his full support, he'll want to consider the legislation, look through the details, hopefully talk to the school communities in his electorate about the impact that this product is having on our young people and on parents and school leaders.

JOURNALIST: The harshest of those penalties, seven years and $2.2 million. What do you have to do to get that sort of thing slapped on you? I imagine that that would be on the extreme end, but what would that mean? 

BUTLER: That ultimately would be a matter for courts, after prosecutions took effect. But it's not for commercial possession, which is, you know, the possession of substantial numbers of vapes. This is really about people who flout the clear intent of these laws and still try to supply them, potentially to manufacture them, import them and advertise them. This is a very clear message to a whole range of people who are involved in this market, some of them organised criminal gangs, and some of them, at the moment, relatively law-abiding retailers. This industry is something we intend to shut down. This will be returned to a therapeutic good that patients with clinical need, determined by their treating doctors and nurse practitioners, are able to access in the usual therapeutic way: through a pharmacy, not through a convenience store or a vape store that too often set up down the road from our schools.

JOURNALIST: Will there be any compensation or support for those law-abiding suppliers who will have to shut down?


JOURNALIST: Ultimately, this sort of legislation could push vaping further underground. Are you prepared for that, is there enough resources at the border to seize these things coming in?

BUTLER: We're very conscious of that risk. We're conscious of a whole range of “squeezed balloon” effects, if you like, on this. And we've provided Border Force with the resources they asked for to be able to do this job effectively. Already, I think they've demonstrated a very big increase in seizure activity, since the import ban took effect on the 1st of January. I'm talking with my state and territory colleagues very regularly about what this will mean for their authorities. This is a single piece of legislation that I hope will pass the Federal Parliament, and is then able to be enforced by state and territory governments through the cooperative scheme that we have around Therapeutic Goods, and have had for a long time in this country. 

This will take a determined effort. There's no question about it: this thing has exploded very, very quickly in this country. And I'm under no illusions about the challenge to stamp it out, and to prevent it from hooking a whole new generation to nicotine addiction. But we've got a responsibility to do this. This has the ability or potential to unwind decades of efforts in tobacco control. Decades of efforts that particularly are about protecting future generations. So, it will be tough, but we're determined to do it. 

JOURNALIST: You mentioned the UK and New Zealand. Obviously, vapes are global market. Like Australia’s action alone might not be that effective. Is that really just convenient timing? Are you in correspondence with your counterparts in New Zealand, UK, saying “we're going to do this way, you're going do that”. Like, how closely did you work, given that it's all kind of seeming to happen a very similar time? 

BUTLER: This was not a conspiracy, Sarah. This is a sheer coincidence. People watching this area have seen a pretty vigorous debate about this in New Zealand, particularly since the change of government and also in the UK. My reading of the newspapers in the UK show this is still a matter of some debate within the UK Conservative Party. But the Prime Minister and Secretary of Health over there are determined to push ahead with this vote, as I understand it, today, UK time.

JOURNALIST: We've heard this morning from medical experts that we haven't seen a decrease of vaping products in Australia, since the latest legislation because of a stockpile within Australia. So how many are produced domestically? Like what is the proportion of domestically manufactured vapes that we're expecting to stamp out?

BUTLER: I don't think we're aware of any domestic manufacturer. I think all of the vapes, as I understand it, that are used in Australia are either disposable or reusable vapes that are imported. Which is why we put in place an import ban, first of all. The intention was to start to choke off supply progressively, as we move to a ban on the sale and, essentially, the retail of these things. As I said, substantial numbers have been seized at the border. But I've been pretty clear in conferences like this, that this is a tough job for the Border Force. These things don't come into the country in big containers with a with a “vapes” label on the side of them, unfortunately. But the Border Force is really lifting its seizure activity. And I know if these laws passed the Parliament, as I hope they will, in coming months, there'll be increased activity enforcement activity on the ground by state authorities as well.

JOURNALIST: You said that you wouldn't be looking at a “tax and regulate” system? We do tax and regulate cigarettes. Can you explain, I guess, why there is a different approach? I mean, you don't have to go to a doctor to get a prescription. You buy cigarettes at any convenience store, any petrol station, whatever, to buy smokes, why is it that vapes have been treated different ways?

BUTLER: I don't think there's anyone in this country or around the world who would say that if we could go back in time 100 years, that we wouldn't ban cigarettes at the start. Instead, we fought for decades and decades to understand clearly the health impacts, and then fought for more decades to get tobacco control legislation through our Parliament and parliaments right around the world. Cigarettes have killed untold millions of millions of people right across the world. What we have the opportunity to do now - I wish it was five years ago - but what we have the opportunity to do now with a window closing, is to stamp out something in its early stages. Stamp out vaping and e-cigarettes that is particularly targeted at young people, not just here in Australia, but around the world. That doesn't mean that our efforts to continue to drive down the rates of tobacco use, of smoking, in this country aren’t just as important. And we passed legislation just before the end of the last year to reignite our efforts to do that. But I think the difference here is we have a new product, that yes, it has exploded in use over the last four or five years, but it's still young enough and new enough for us to stamp it out. And if we could go back in time 100 years and do the same thing with cigarettes, I think we all would do it.

JOURNALIST: Is there concern that this might push people back to cigarettes?

BUTLER: Obviously, we've been alert to the risk that people with nicotine addiction would move from vaping to cigarettes. Which is why we started, if you like, with a more determined anti-tobacco series of laws late last year. We've also, through the Budget last year, substantially increased our resources for quit support. Not only for vaping, which will roll out over the course of this year, but also increased support for people to quit smoking as well. A range of reforms to stamp out some of the new marketing tactics of cigarette companies for cigarettes sticks and for loose leaf tobacco passed the Parliament last year, as well as an increase in the price of tobacco, as well. So, we are conscious of that risk and determined to put in place stronger regulation of cigarettes to complement the work we're doing in vaping. 

Thanks, everyone. 

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