Minister for Health and Aged Care - press conference - 23 April 2024

Read the transcript for Minister Butler's press conference in Melbourne on the seizure of illegal vapes; the mental health system.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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JOSH BURNS MP, MEMBER FOR MACNAMARA: Welcome everyone to the Australian Border Force container examination facility. Very pleased to be here with Mark Butler, Minister for Health. It's a really important day where, obviously you can see behind us the confiscated items of vaping products that otherwise would be going into schools, and otherwise, will be going into a communities, and the Border Force team here have done an outstanding job. And I thank them for all of their efforts. I also want to say that vaping is all about big business, but it's hurting little lungs. And we know that this is right across our school. This is happening right across our young people and the efforts of our Border Force and our health professionals to target this, and to ensure that young people are not caught up in this awful business, is really important. Mark, it's very good to have you here in Melbourne and in one of the largest port facilities and busiest port facilities in the country.   
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thank you, Josh, and thank you for hosting us. We've been an urgent care clinic today, you're a terrific advocate for strong health policy in your community here in Melbourne, across the country. We're also joined by Assistant Commissioner Watson of the Australian Border Force, who is the Commander for the Southern Area, and the ABF’s responsibilities right across the country, and also Tony Lawler, Head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration. These two bodies, the ABF and the TGA have responsibility for implementing the Federal Government's tough approach to stamping out recreational vaping in Australia and they are doing an absolutely terrific job, and I'll talk about that in a couple of seconds.  
The first thing I want to say, though, is that vaping was sold to our community as a therapeutic good. It was designed and promoted as a product for hardened smokers, many of whom had been smoking for decades and decades, finally kicked the habit after potentially trying a whole range of other therapies, nicotine replacement. Some years into this experiment, what we in Australia and right across the world now understand is what this has actually been is a cynical device from big tobacco to try to recruit a new generation to nicotine addiction.  
The tragedy is here in Australia and across the world it has been working, you only have to look at the products, some of which are behind us right now, to see that these are not being marketed and targeted to middle aged and older hardened smokers. These are products deliberately designed to be attractive to kids. I just picked one up that was a vape disguised as a USB stick. There are vapes disguised as highlighter pens, so students can hide them in their pencil cases at school. You also only have to look at where they're being sold. Nine out of ten stores in Australia are within walking distance of our schools, and that's no accident. It's a deliberate strategy because they know that schools are their key target market. One in six high school students in Australia are vaping, schools tell us right across Australia, that vaping is now the number one behavioural issue that they have to deal with. It's impacting mental health of our young people, it's impacting their learning behaviours as well. Late last week, Health Ministers from every single jurisdiction Liberal and Labor aligned, reaffirmed our shared commitment to stamp out recreational vaping. Yes, it will be available still as a therapeutic good, available on prescription from your doctor or your nurse practitioner, at a pharmacist, an approved product is genuinely a therapeutic good. But this idea that these things should be available widely down the road from schools recruiting a new generation to nicotine addiction is something we are determined to stamp out.  
The first phase of our program started on the 1st of January. And that was a ban on the import of disposable vapes. I'm delighted to say that with the additional resources, huge efforts of the ABF the Border Force and the Therapeutic Goods Administration, already just in April, we have seized more than 1.5 million illegal vapes taken out of the hands of young Australians and put into warehouses like this for ultimate disposal. In addition to the actual number of vapes that we've taken off the streets, we're also seeing evidence of change behaviour. One of the industry reports from the vaping industry in China that reports that exports to Australia, for that come from that country, which is the main supplier of vapes globally, are down by 93% since we implemented the import ban on the 1st of January.  

We’re also here in Victoria seeing much greater interest in people seeking support to quit vaping. Quit Victoria has reported over the last several days that the number of vapers seeking their help to quit vaping has doubled since the same time last year. Now there's much, much more for us to do but I'm very heartened by those initial responses to the first phase of our reforms.  

The second important phase though, is that the Federal Parliament must pass laws that make illegal or outlaw the sale and supply of vapes in Australia that will shut down those vape stores that parents and schools are so concerned about opening up down the road from their schools. And that will mean that not only we're stopping the import of these things on the border, we're also clamping down on the sale of supplying these things to our kids that frankly, has run rampant over the last five years of failed policy from the former government.  

I can't thank the officers of ABF and the TGA enough for the additional work they have undertaken since the 1st of January with additional resources from the Federal Government to make a great start on what is going to be a really tough piece of work for us to clamp down on recreational vaping.  

But it is important to say just in closing, the Federal Parliament has a huge opportunity to do something that makes a meaningful and lasting difference to the health of our youngest Australians. I really urge all of my parliamentary colleagues to look closely at these laws and when they've come to a vote over the next couple of months in the House of Representatives and the Senate, support the reforms. So, I might hand over now to Assistant Commissioner Watson from the Australian Border Force. 
ASSISTANT COMMISSIONER JAMES WATSON, AUSTRALIAN BORDER FORCE: Thanks very much minister. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you Minister for attending out here at our container examination facility. The Australian Border Force is really committed to working hard to deliver on the detection, seizure and destruction of vapes at our borders. We work pre-border; that is with our overseas partners offshore. We work at borders here in the airports and seaports of mail centres, and we work post border, particularly with our law enforcement and TGA colleagues to detect, seize and disrupt the supply of vapes to our community.  
Since the commencement of this year, the Australian Border Force has seized well over 600,000 vaping products. And as late as this morning, even here in Victoria, there are more significant seizures that are occurring. 

The Australian Border Force is committed right across the country. Our women and men are out there across all sectors, ensuring that the work of keeping the borders safe, and ensuring that we remove the threat of vaping products coming across our borders is maintained. We're obviously really thrilled to be able to work with such great partners with the TGA and our State and Territory law enforcement partners. We know that this is not an easy job. That's why we're committed, we’ve got offices right across the country who are working day in day out as part of their duties to detect these illicit vapes and be able to appropriately destroy them.  

It's a difficult task, because as we know, vaping is not only harmful from a health perspective, but the environmental impacts of these vaping products are also significant. We have to work very hard then to go about the process of dismantling and destroying and doing this in a way that is responsible, and recognises the fact that these vaping products that not only contain harmful illicit substances in the vapes themselves, but their plastics, their batteries, there are all sorts of products in them that make their disposal even more difficult. We're really delighted to be able to lend our part to the problem of ensuring that we crack down pre/post and at border on the vaping products. 
PROFESSOR TONY LAWLER, THERAPEUTIC GOODS ADMINISTRATION: Thank you very much Assistant Commissioner. So, we are seeing an alarming rise in the use of vapes but also the impact on our community, particularly the younger community. We know that these products are marketed towards children towards teenagers to pre-adolescence. We know that there are immediate short term health effects in terms of you impact on growing brains, the impact of hearts and lungs, we know that there's the potential for nicotine toxicity and nicotine withdrawal.  
One of the most worrying things is the long-term health effects of vaping are still emerging. We need to be very vigilant and very proactive in addressing this risk to public health. In fact, the regulatory approach has been taken to date has already having effect. From the 1st of January, as the Minister has highlighted, there has been a ban on the importation of single use disposable plates. From the 1st of March, there was a requirement for import licenses permits and notifications, to allow the importation of vapes.  

What we've seen today, and in the seizures that Assistant Commissioner Watson has described, is the fact that these measures are actually having an effect. We know that there are significant seizures at the borders and within our borders. This is an indication that these dangerous substances are being kept off the streets and being kept out of the hands of our children and those who are being adversely affected by vapes. What this also represents is a significant collaborative effort between a number of different agencies, as has been mentioned, the Australian Border Force, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration. But also, we are working very actively, very collaboratively across jurisdictions with Health and Police Ministers, and also health and police departments around the country. And what we're seeing is a very strong collaboration, a very strong joint commitment to addressing, arresting and reducing the use of vapes in Australia. 
JOURNALIST: Minister there's been about $25 million allocated to Border Force to actually enforce this rule. Is that enough money and how are these vapes being disposed of? 
BUTLER: In last year's budget, there was significant additional resources to ADF, about $25 million, and significant additional resources to the Therapeutic Goods Administration to do their job, as well. This was not a figure we plucked out of the air. This was a figure that we talked very carefully to the ABF and TGA about, to know what they thought they needed to be able to do this job, and we're confident with the resources we allocated in last year's budget are the right level. 
JOURNALIST: Do you think the government has the support of The Liberals and The Greens to pass these reforms in the Senate?  
BUTLER: We're still talking with our Parliamentary colleagues. There's a Senate inquiry underway that will allow Senators in particular to examine the laws and hear from stakeholders, particularly those public health experts, who have such strong views, but also school communities, who frankly have made hundreds of submissions to the TGA when these draft bills were first put out, so I'm confident that we can have good discussions, constructive discussions with our parliamentary colleagues to pull together a majority in both houses.  
I'm also still confident that Peter Dutton will see the importance of these laws and the degree to which communities, particularly parent communities, are really keen for the Federal Parliament to act. Frankly, parents and school communities are pretty angry that things have gotten this far. They often say to me, how did how did this come about? How do we get to a position where vapes are so easily available, not just to high school students, but increasingly, the primary school students as well, and they're impatient, understandably, impatient for the Parliament, finally, to act. The best time would have been five years ago, frankly, but the second best time is now and I really strongly urge Peter Dutton, to look at these laws closely to listen to health experts and school communities who are desperate for the Federal Parliament to act and to support the proposals before the Parliament. 
JOURNALIST: Will these reforms touch on as well police enforcement, you know, checking on those smaller businesses and small operators who might be trying to illegally sell fakes? 
BUTLER: If these laws pass the Parliament, which we hoped they will do before the 30th of June, they'll take effect on the 1st of July, and they will outlaw the sale and the supply, and the commercial possession of vapes, other than those that have been approved, in the process that Tony Lawler talked about. Those laws will then be enforceable by state governments. So initially, our advice was we might have to pass laws to every single Parliament of the land, we now know that we can pass a single law through the Federal Parliament and those laws can be enforced by state authorities. That will principally happen through state health authorities. Those are the authorities funded by state and territory Governments to enforce federal laws like the Therapeutic Goods Laws, but we do know that police will be engaged because of the deep involvement in this market of organised criminal gangs.  
You in Victoria understand that better than anyone with the spate of fire bombings that have been happening here, but this is increasingly a market controlled by criminal gangs, basically giving them a very lucrative stream of revenue to fund all of their other criminal activities like drug trafficking, sex trafficking, and the like. So, where there is an involvement of criminal gangs, there's a sharing of intelligence between agencies like the agencies represented behind me so that police can do their job about stopping the work of criminal gangs. But from a health perspective the enforcement of these federal laws will principally be the responsibility of state authorities. 
JOURNALIST: So, the shops would actually be closed down, they would actually be shuttered? Get rid of these vape shops, is that the intention of the law?  
BUTLER: From the 1st of July, there is no business for vape stores to be operating, no legal business whatsoever. That will be a huge relief to those school communities that see these vape stores opening up really every week, across Australia down the road from their schools, really holding the allure of these brightly coloured bubble gum flavoured vapes to students at their school. That will not be a business that could be legally carried on from the 1st of July if these laws pass the parliament. For those multi-use businesses, convenience stores that sell a whole range of things, again, they will become a target of enforcement if they have vapes they are seeking to sell, in addition to all the other products they might sell, that will be something that will become illegal from the 1st of July. And we're not messing about the penalties that are contained in the bill are serious. They involve imprisonment, up to seven years for the sale, supply and importation of these vapes and fines of up to $2.2 million. We are serious about stamping out this public health menace.  
JOURNALIST: The states are on board with this? Are they happy to actually enforce this? Have you been talking to them about it? 
BUTLER: I had a meeting with my Health Minister colleagues only late last week on Thursday night and on Friday, and we held a joint press conference, issued a joint statement reaffirming our shared commitment Liberal, Labor, State, Territory and Commonwealth Ministers shared commitment to stamping out recreational vaping and a call from all Governments for these laws to pass the Federal Parliament. I'm very, very confident, we've been working on this now for more than 12 months as a group of Health Ministers. I'm very confident we've got the shared commitment of all Governments to stamp this out. Only late last year we also had a joint meeting of Health Ministers, Police Ministers, Police Commissioners and health departments to set up structures which Tony Lawler from the TGA referred to, to set up structures to make sure we've got the enforcement mechanisms right. 
JOURNALIST: Minister, on mental health, Patrick McGorry has written an open letter to the Prime Minister and First Ministers warning the mental health system is neglected and weakening our society. Should mental health be treated more like cancer in terms of intervention and prevention? 
BUTLER: First of all, I have the utmost respect for Patrick McGorry. I've worked closely with him since I was first appointed as the Mental Health Minister well over a decade ago when Patrick was the Australian of the Year, and played such an important role advocating nationally for better mental health services generally, but in particular, for young Australians. As the Prime Minister has said over the last couple of weeks, there is obviously more that we should be doing in this country to support people with mental illness.  
I've been working with a range of stakeholders, clinicians and other mental health stakeholders, obviously including consumers, for the last 12 months on work that we could be doing to provide better support mainly in primary care settings or for Australians experiencing acute stress. But we've also been working with State Governments now for some time, on understanding the need, the gaps in better mental health services for those with more acute needs. So, people with very severe chronic mental illness who have traditionally been a group of Australian supported by state services. And I'm sure we'll have more to say about that over the next little while as well. 
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask on the federal court order against X to remove those videos regarding the terrorist attack in Sydney, what's your reaction to that? 
BUTLER: My reaction is that of all Australians which is one of real frustration with this American tech billionaire thinks that he's somehow above the laws of Australia, who seeks to market his product in this country but doesn't want to be bound by Australian law. That's really the height of arrogance that was sent out in the last several days that when our eSafety Commissioner issues an order, takes it to court to seek an injunction but these graphic, violent and dangerous videos be taken down from his social media platform that he seeks to simply ignore the decisions of the federal court. So, I think all of us call on Mr. Musk and frankly any other tech billionaire, that is seeking to project their social media platforms in this country, you are bound by Australian laws, and you should respect the decisions of our courts.  
JOURNALIST: What happens if he doesn't comply with this order?  
BUTLER: That will be a matter for the courts and the authorities, including the eSafety Commissioner. But as I've said, over the course of the weekend, we're very proud of the work of the eSafety Commissioner. This is one of the best regimes around making our social media platforms a safe space, anywhere in the world, has bipartisan support in Australia and we back to work with the eSafety Commissioner to the hilt. She won't be bullied, and this government won't be bullied by the antics of this tech billionaire. We expect him to be bound by Australian laws and to respect the decisions of Australian laws. 
JOURNALIST: On mental health, will the Government commit to a review on how funds are disbursed? 
BUTLER: I've been I've been working with the mental health sector for the last 12 months very deeply on our response to an evaluation of very big mental health program and better access programs. So, the short answer to that is yes, we're constantly reviewing the way in which mental health programs are operating and the need to make changes to them if needed to ensure that Australians get the best possible mental health support. Thanks everyone.  

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