Minister for Health and Aged Care - press conference - 28 November 2023

Read Minister Butler's press conference at Parliament House about the next steps on vaping reforms.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Vaping is now a very serious public health menace for Australia, particularly impacting our youngest members of the community. We've seen stories over the course of high school exam season of high school students having to wear nicotine patches in order to get through a two- or three-hour exam such is their level of nicotine addiction. Over the course of the year, we've heard reports from poisons hotlines, run by state governments of dozens of reports of children under the age of four being poisoned by the use of vapes. We've seen research that shows that young people vaping are three times more likely to take up cigarettes and tragically, we're already seeing that factor through our cigarette statistics. The only cohort in the population in Australia where smoking rates are actually on the rise is the youngest members of our community. I've said before that the Commonwealth Government, along with all state health ministers, are determined to stamp out this public health menace.
 
Today, I'm very delighted to announce that further detail of the measures that we will be taking. Vaping was sold to communities around the world, including to the community in Australia as a therapeutic good that would help hardened smokers kick the habit. People who have been smoking for decades and tried a range of other smoking cessation activities and therapeutic goods like nicotine patches and the like but were really at the end of their tether and needed something else. What we now know some years into this experiment is this is actually a product being used to recruit a new generation to nicotine addiction. We know that about one in six high school students are vaping, about one in four young Australians aged between 18 and 24. This is a product that is deliberately and cynically marketed to them. You'll see in the vape stores, you'll see in convenience stores, vapes that have pink unicorns on them that are flavoured in a way to deliberately attract young people. You will see them disguised deliberately as highlighter pens or USB sticks so that students can put them in their pencil case and not have them detected by teachers or their parents. We've heard over the course of this year school communities nominate vapes and vaping as the number one behavioural issue not just in high schools, but increasingly in primary schools as well.
 
There is a huge level of determination across all levels of government to stamp this out. We've had a number of meetings involving health ministers across all jurisdictions and a joint meeting of health ministers and police ministers last week, to reinforce a commitment that's been expressed by the Prime Minister and premiers across the country to stamp out this public health menace. Next month, the Government will be presenting to the Governor General a regulation for his signature to prohibit the import of all disposable vapes from the 1st of January next year, on New Year's Day. These are the vapes that are deliberately sold to our kids. These are the vapes that have pink unicorns on them and bubblegum flavouring, disguised in order for them to hide them in their pencil cases. This is not a therapeutic good to help hardened smokers kick the habit. This is a good that is deliberately targeted at our kids to recruit them to nicotine addiction and then to cigarette smoking. Still the biggest preventable cause of death in Australia and we are determined to stamp it out. Also, on the 1st of January we are going to expand the prescribing rights for genuinely therapeutic uses of vapes or e-cigarettes to all doctors and all nurse practitioners so that those hardened smokers who do have a therapeutic need for a vape are able to get it on prescription through their doctor.
 
From the 1st of March further regulations will take effect that will prohibit the import of any vape, in particular non-disposable or refillable vapes, unless a permit has been obtained from the Office of Drug Protection on approval with conditions set by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Those conditions will include things like: they must be plain pharmaceutical packaging, not with pink unicorns on them and a whole range of other devices to attract young people. There must be no flavourings, they must be plain flavoured. They must have prescribed levels of nicotine in them rather than the broad range of often dangerous levels of nicotine that our state laboratories and TGA detect in vapes as they are seized around the country. Those will take effect from the 1st of March.
 
In the early part of next year, the Government will also introduce legislation into the Commonwealth Parliament to prohibit the domestic manufacture and supply of vapes that do not comply with those conditions. Currently this is a market largely supplied from overseas through imports. We're determined that if we stopped those imports at the border, we don't see a squeezed balloon effect through a domestic manufacturing industry sprouting up as well. This will be a single piece of legislation through the Commonwealth Parliament that will cover all state jurisdictions. When we were initially advised about how to enforce and put in place our comprehensive regulation against these e-cigarettes, we were dealing with the possibility that we would have to see legislation passed through every single parliament in Australia, which will obviously take time, and maximize the lobbying opportunities for the tobacco industry. I'm pleased to be able to say that all states have agreed that we will pass a single piece of legislation through the Australian Parliament, which state authorities will be able to enforce at a state level.
 
I can also announce that after deep discussions with Australian Border Force and with the Therapeutic Goods Administration, that the Government is providing significant additional resources to those two agencies for them to do this job: $25 million in additional resources will be provided to the Australian Border Force to allow them to increase their enforcement efforts and activities at the border. And more than $50 million will be provided to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which will have to design and put in place this new permit regulation system.
 
As I said, we also had a very productive meeting of health ministers and police ministers last week, which was attended also by the heads of health departments and importantly police commissioners as well. They received a report from the ABF Commissioner, Commissioner Outram, and also from the Deputy Commissioner the Australian Federal Police outlining not just the particular activities around imports of vapes and e-cigarettes into Australia, but also connections to organised crime. This is a low-risk, high-reward activity for organised crime, including outlaw motorcycle gangs and although much of the on the ground enforcement of this new regime will be conducted by state health authorities and state consumer affairs departments, there is obviously a crossover into traditional policing activities when the involvement of organised crime gangs or outlaw motorcycle gangs is detected through intelligence gathering. There was a determined commitment by all agencies, in all jurisdictions to work together to do that. To that end, a cross jurisdiction, cross portfolio working group has been established by all jurisdictions that will be co-chaired by ABF Commissioner, Commissioner Outram, and also the head of New South Wales Health.
 
In addition to those activities, we also recognise as the Government that we need to do more to support Australians who have been recluded to nicotine addiction, whether it's through smoking cigarettes, or the use of vapes and e-cigarettes and almost $30 million in additional resourcing will be provided to some of the well-known services that have existed in Australia for some time: Quitline services, some of the online equivalents of those services, which will be expanded to include particularly good cessation support for vaping activities. In addition, more than $60 million was provided in the Budget earlier this year for public health campaigns. Again, targeting smoking in its traditional forms, but also vaping in particular. As well as a community wide campaign that will be rolled out over the course of next year, we're also in the process of developing campaigns that are targeted to young Australians and working with other agencies to make sure that is well-targeted. We've also funded a range of activities to support clinicians to provide the best possible advice to patients, and in the case of minors, to patients and their parents who are struggling with nicotine addiction. The College of General Practitioners, which has been engaged by the Department to provide those updated clinical guidelines is close to completing that work so that that will be provided to medical practitioners and nurse practitioners ready for these new arrangements to take effect in the new year.
 
Can I just reiterate that there are some in this country, including in this building, that urge us to raise the white flag on e-cigarettes and vapes. That it's gone too far, the genie is out of the bottle, and we should adopt instead some form of regulation and allow them to be sold readily. That is not the view of this Government. I know it is not the view of state and territory governments as well. We now have incontrovertible evidence that this is a product being deliberately targeted at the youngest members of our community with one goal in mind and that goal is to recruit them to nicotine addiction, and then recruit them to cigarette smoking. Given all that we know about the distress and the death and the cost that cigarettes have reaped over decades and decades, there is no way this government is going to raise the white flag on the future of our youngest Australians. Happy to take questions.
 
JOURNALIST: Most people would know that if you just go to your local tobacconist, even if you know there are laws in place to stop the selling of vapes that you can just, you know, go under the counter and you know, give a bit of a wink and get it anyway. So, can you tell us how this is going to stop that and are you going to be doing anything like raiding the stores that are actually selling these illegally already?
 
BUTLER: Those store owners, those store managers, whether they're tobacco in convenience stores, or vape stores that are increasingly opening up down the road from our schools because they know that is their target market. They need to know that from the time these regulations take effect they will be breaking the law. Currently there is a loophole in place that means it is legal to sell non-nicotine vapes. As we do the raids at the border  and states are doing sweeps as well on the ground, what we are finding, and this should be no surprise really, that all those vapes that are labelled “no nicotine” or don't contain a label at all, overwhelmingly, more than 90 per cent, once they are lab tested are found to contain nicotine. We know that's why people buy a vape - to get the nicotine hit. We've got to close this loophole. Greg Hunt, to his credit, tried to close the loophole but his party room didn't let him. The enforcement of the current arrangements is so difficult because policing authorities, or the ABF, or health authorities need to go raid a place, take the vapes away and send them off for lab testing to determine whether or not a law has been broken. What we're doing now is closing that loophole. All of these disposable vapes, no matter what they present as, will be illegal as we start to put these regulations in place. We will also increase the resources in enforcement and that will see on the ground visits from state authorities where there are suspected breaches of these new laws. I do send this message. These are not measures targeting users. These are not measures that impose any penalty whatsoever on people that are using vapes. There is no penalty for people who use vapes, but there are substantial penalties for people who end up illegally selling them or are possessing them for commercial purposes.
 
JOURNALIST: Can you run through those penalties for a store that gets caught selling vapes?
 
BUTLER: They will be very substantial. We will publish them in due course, but we recognise we need to lift the penalties. There will be very substantial penalties for commercial entities who import or supply and sell these vapes against these regulations.
 
JOURNALIST: Are you talking fines or potential jail time? How far could it go?
 
BUTLER: We will publish them, and they'll be clear but we recognise that the current penalties in place, we don't think are sufficient to deter the activities we are determined to stamp out.
 
JOURNALIST: The prohibition is for all vapes, even those non-nicotine vapes for importation and for selling them, so it’s all vapes, not just the nicotine?
 
BUTLER: We will do this in a in a series of tranches. From the 1st of January, it will be illegal to import any disposable vape. From the 1st of March, it will be illegal to import and supply any vape that does not comply with TGA standards: and that is that they be non-disposable, they be plainly packaged, that are not flavoured, and that have a range of other conditions about nicotine content and the absence of certain chemicals we know that to be particularly harmful. And then legislation will be put in place into the parliament to allow states and territories to police the supply on the ground. That will be a piece of Commonwealth legislation, which states are able to enforce. States currently enforce provisions of the Therapeutic Goods Administration Act - or the legislation that the TGA governs at a federal level. States have arrangements in place to mirror that legislation and allows them to enforce these provisions. We will put those provisions into the Parliament when we come back in the new year, and that will happen. We'll deal with the domestic supply and manufacture arrangements; we'll see them pass over the course of the first half of next year we hope.
 
JOURNALIST: So, the only way which you can buy a vape is if you have a prescription from March next year?
 
BUTLER: Yes. That is right. There is still the so-called therapeutic pathway, if you have a genuine therapeutic need for a vape, you can go to your doctor - actually we're widening the range of doctors you can go to get a prescription - and if the doctor takes the view that this is important for smoking cessation or nicotine addiction, they are able to provide you with a prescription. You can take that prescription to a pharmacy - not a convenience store, not a vape store, you can take it to a pharmacy - because this is a therapeutic good. That's what we were told when these products were presented.
 
JOURNALIST: And Minister, will there be any kind of compensation for businesses that sell vapes that don't contain nicotine currently?
 
BUTLER: No.
 
JOURNALIST: Minister, why not put in place a ban on possession of vapes? Obviously, it's illegal to possess a bunch of drugs, it's illegal to possess alcohol if you're under 18. Why not have an individual possession offense?
 
BUTLER: We thought through that, that was obviously an option, and we determined that the mischief here was in the import and supply. We're not about to attribute blame to people who use these products and have become addicted. This has been a vast act of subterfuge by the tobacco industry that promoted the development of these products and the marketing of these products, as I said, for one clear purpose to recruit a new generation of nicotine addicts and I'm not going to blame those users. I am going to blame the people who develop, import and supply them, and we're going to try and stamp that out.
 
JOURNALIST: Minister, is that not sort of an admission that then we see a bunch of teenagers before the courts for possession? Because nothing makes teenagers want to do something more than it being illegal?
 
BUTLER: I’m saying there'll be no penalties on teenagers.
 
JOURNALIST: But is that not kind of a concession that they will still seek out vapes, that this will still occur? And on the issue of, you mentioned, community wide campaigns? Is there any coordination with the education department to actually go into schools and give education?
 
BUTLER: As I said on your second point, the campaign particularly targeting youth is something we're working very closely with education: the Education Department and other education youth authorities. They have particular expertise, obviously, in those sorts of issues. State governments to their credit, have also been running and are in the process of developing campaigns targeted at young people. They're running a series of activities through their schools because as I said, I think, school educational authorities, parents, school councils, they've been saying for some time, this is now the number one behavioural issue they're confronting in their school communities. They've been active in this area over the last several months, you will have seen a number of campaigns running in different states. We intend to supplement that with a national campaign.
 
JOURNALIST: This is a very strong preventive measure, obviously, but there are already young people who have already become addicted. Are you worried that - you've already mentioned that - they're more likely to turn to cigarettes? Are you worried that there'll be a lot of short-term increase in young smokers as a result?
 
BUTLER: There already is an increase in young smoking. As I said, young vapers are three times as likely to take up smoking. This is now the only cohort in the community - the youngest people, in late teens and early 20s - the only cohort in the community where smoking rates are going up. And we know why, we know why, because that's what vapes were intended to do and tragically, it's working. So, we've got to stamp out that gateway. But as you might know, there's a range of measures going through the Senate this week, I hope, which will update the world leading tobacco control reforms that we put in place when we were last in government and that are due to sunset on the 1st of April. So, a range of those measures seek to make smoking cigarettes more expensive and less attractive, and particularly deal with some of those marketing strategies the tobacco industry has put in place since Nicola Roxon introduced plain packaging and the symbols on the front of cigarettes - the marketing strategies that the industry has put in place to get around those reforms. We're trying to take a comprehensive approach to this: price signals that we put in place in the Budget, updated reforms that we think reflect best practice from around the world. We looked very closely at what countries like Canada, the UK, New Zealand - although they’ve changed their position in the last 24 hours - the best possible evidence to make sure we have world's best practice around tobacco, as well as these vaping laws.
 
JOURNALIST: Flavoured vapes - so just to clarify for parents because it's obviously a big issue - flavoured vapes will be outlawed from March under this legislation?
 
BUTLER: Disposable vapes will not be able to be imported. This is really what kids are using. They're not using refillable vapes, overwhelmingly they're using disposable vapes. This is the product that the industry has come up with to attract young people. We're banning the import of those from the 1st of January to really start to dry up the supply, and then over the course of the following few months, we'll put in place the permit system, or the therapeutic pathway and laws through our Parliament that will be able to be reflected by state governments and make unlawful the supply. The import - the actual activity of bringing them in in the first place – that will be introduced on the 1st of January. The supply on the ground will require legislation to pass through the parliament, that will be introduced when we come back to the Parliament in the new year, we want to see that pass over the following couple of months.
 
JOURNALIST: You say this Special Access Scheme pathway will see more medical practitioners able to prescribe it. So, part of the problem is that many doctors don't want to, is that what you're finding speaking to GPs and things? How do you think that's going to work?
 
BUTLER: What we had under the former government, I make no criticism about this, but the former government set up a regime where doctors and nurse practitioners would have to apply to the TGA - to the Therapeutic Goods Administration - for the right to prescribe a vape. And only, I think from memory, some hundreds did out of the almost 30,000 GPs we have for example. So, we're removing that requirement. It’s removing this sort of bureaucratic hurdle to them being able to do that, so that all medical practitioners can do that, and that will widen the pathway a lot. We will still monitor whether that's sufficient. I think I said publicly on a number of occasions that health ministers are interested in exploring, for example, whether there is a pharmacist only pathway to get a vape, there's a range of other things you can get from your pharmacist that are generally behind the counter, they require a conversation with the pharmacist, they don't require a prescription from a doctor. We haven't made that decision yet, but I've said if the broadening of criteria that we're putting in place on the 1st of January is not sufficient to ensure that people with a genuine therapeutic need can get access, then we'll look at other ways.
 
JOURNALIST: Do you expect GPs to broadly get on board with wanting to prescribe people vapes?
 
BUTLER: My view about this is where a GP has a patient with a therapeutic need, whether it's about smoking cessation or anything else, of course, there's an expectation that GPs will respond to that.
 
JOURNALIST: I just googled DIY vape recipes and like literally dozens of videos have come up.
 
BUTLER: I can’t read that, but I’ll take your word for it.
 
JOURNALIST: So how are you going to actually target you know, backyard vape batches, because a lot of these measures are obviously aimed at organised crime, import, but what will we see from the government in terms of stopping kids doing this on their own, in their backyards?
 
BUTLER: The first thing we need to do is stop them coming in from overseas, that’s the overwhelming bulk of supply. As I said, then we'll be putting legislation into the Commonwealth Parliament to outlaw the manufacture of vapes as well. Now, I want to be honest, and I've tried to say this as often as I can. We don't underestimate the challenge of stamping out a market that has exploded over the last three or four years in particular. We know it's going to be tough, and we know that there's a whole range of other prohibitions against the import of illicit drugs and various other things that continue to find their way by hook or by crook, into Australia. I'm not going to pretend that from the 1st of January, we're going to be able to flick the switch and stop these things entirely. But we are determined to do everything we can, we're determined to put additional resources into the enforcement, and we're determined to stamp out this idea that school students report very openly of it being so easy to get these things. Stores that open up down the road, deliberately targeting them, that students are walking into easily getting access to these vapes. I don't underestimate how tough this is, given how rife these things have become. I also don't underestimate how hard they will be fought by the industry, we see the billboard advertising, people will be stomping the halls of this building, trying to make arguments why we should adopt a regulatory approach and essentially raise the white flag, but we are very determined as a government - but also across jurisdictions - to do everything we can here.
 
JOURNALIST: Just on the New Zealand changes you mentioned earlier, what do you make of those changes to wind back that age-based ban on smoking? And it was done for budget reasons. Do you believe Australia has too greater budget reliance on tobacco cost?
 
BUTLER: None of the decisions we take on tobacco control are taken with a view to improving our revenue base. They are all taken for example, when we have increased tobacco excise over both levels of government - the former government increased tobacco excise through their time in government by about 128 per cent. As tobacco excise has been increased, it's been with the goal of stamping out smoking, recognising that a success actually has an impact on revenue down the track. As to New Zealand, I think what the experience in New Zealand shows us is the power of the tobacco industry, and we will never underestimate that. I was in the health portfolio when we introduced our world leading plain packaging reforms when we were last in government, working with Nicola Roxon on those reforms. I remember how hard fought they were. I remember how long it took to get the Coalition to support them, Peter Dutton said it was “a bridge too far.” We were fought tooth and nail by the industry in the courts, and that is why we've taken time to make sure that we've got the regulatory arrangements right, because we know they will be fought, we know they’ll be lobbied against, we know there's the possibility of legal challenge and we're determined to get it right. New Zealand, I think, is just a reminder at the ongoing power of the tobacco industry lobby.
 
JOURNALIST: Is it disappointing to see New Zealand back down?
 
BUTLER: New Zealand does is a matter for them. Obviously, we try to work in concert as much as possible with likeminded countries in stamping out this industry, stamping out this huge public health menace. Sometimes it is a game of snakes and ladders. We'd like to see as many countries working in the same direction as possible. But ultimately, this is a matter for New Zealand
 
JOURNALIST: Just on the children involved in this, obviously, even for adults it's really hard to get off nicotine, if these reforms work and we're potentially entering into a space where children will be coming off a pretty heavy addiction to nicotine. Are there any supports in place for schools that are dealing with that for the students themselves? And parents dealing with perhaps behavioural issues that have come from that?
 
BUTLER: We’ve got quite substantial additional resources into cessation support and recognise this is not the traditional work of those groups. This is not just about smoking, particularly with adults, this is now about nicotine addiction of young people through vaping. We're working very hard to design those additional supports well, we're working with the traditional providers, and they'll be rolling out over the course of the coming months. Many of them are delivered by state governments - the additional resources that the Commonwealth allocated in the Budget in May will be provided to state governments through a traditional Federation Funding Agreement, but I know they're all up for that job. Again, I don't underestimate how tough this is going to be. But equally, I've not had a single parent speak to me, or write to me and say, “look, it's too far gone, my child is addicted, just give up, we don't want the government to do anything.” Parents want this action. We know how tough it's going to be to get kids in particular who are addicted to these things off them, we’re determined to give parents and schools as much possible support as we can.
 
JOURNALIST: By not bringing in penalties for possession, is that a concession that kids are going to vote anyway?
 
BUTLER: No. What it is, is a decision by governments, not just ours, not to punish users, particularly young users who have been cynically, deliberately targeted by an industry that's got such a history of damage to our community. We're not going to blame the victims here. We're going to go after the suppliers.
 
JOURNALIST: Your final message to those suppliers?
 
BUTLER: Our message is: we are determined to stamp this out. We know what you're doing. We know you are trying to recruit a new generation to this harmful, harmful product of vaping and then through vaping, cigarettes. And we're not going to let it happen.

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