Minister for Health and Aged Care - press conference - 7 November 2023

Read the transcript for Minister Butler's press conference in Sydney on Operation OBELIA; COVID Response Inquiry; assessment and support services for people with ADHD report; Medicare investments.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thanks everyone for coming here. Thank you particularly to the Commissioner and other ABF staff for hosting us here today to step us through Operation OBELIA, which has been a joint operation between Border Force and the Therapeutic Goods Administration for seized vapes coming in through our border to assess whether or not they comply with the existing regulations.
I want to say a couple of things about vaping from a health perspective before I step through this operation. Vaping was sold to communities around the world, including the Australian community, as a therapeutic good that was designed to assist hardened smokers kick the habit, generally people in middle age or even later age who have been smoking for many, many years and having trouble kicking the habit of smoking cigarettes. What we've found, though, some years into this experiment, is that's not what is happening. This is instead – as we see with the vapes behind us - this is now a product that quite obviously is being marketed towards younger people, including relatively young children, you see this in the packaging, you see this in the flavouring.
This is a product now very deliberately and cynically targeted at recruiting a new generation of nicotine addicts, that is our younger citizens here in Australia and across the world. You just have to see it, the type of product being sold, you just have to look at where these vapes are being located, often just down the road from schools because they know that schools are their principal market. And you just have to see through, frankly, tragically, the success that this strategy is having on behalf of Big Tobacco. We know that the vast bulk of people using vapes in Australia are very young, about one in six high school aged students are vaping. About one in four young adults in their late teens and very early 20s are vaping as well. And this is the strategy that Big Tobacco has always had in mind. We also know that the only cohort in our community where smoking cigarettes is actually rising, are our youngest people, because you are more than three times more likely to take up cigarettes if you have vaped, than if you have not vaped. This is clearly a strategy to recruit a new generation to smoke cigarettes and health ministers across the country have made it very clear: we are simply not willing to let this happen.
We confront a situation now where there are massive loopholes in the ability of vapes to come into this country. Right now, many of these vapes, the vast bulk of them captured in Operation OBELIA do not contain a clear label about whether or not they contain nicotine, some of them actually are labelled as not containing nicotine, when they've been sent to the Therapeutic Goods Administration for laboratory testing, more than 90% of them have been found to be illegal - not complying with the regulations. What we're determined to do as a government is to close down these loopholes and to beef up the resources of the Australian Border Force to be able to intercept these vapes before they come into the country and start being distributed and sold to our children. This will also require cooperation with state policing and health authorities and to that end, it's very important later this month, a meeting will take place between all of the country's health ministers and all of the country's police ministers - the first time that has happened in a very, very long time indeed, to explore how we can work together on a single regulatory framework to remove these vapes from the market.
Vaping was never intended to be a recreational product. It was always sold as a therapeutic product for hardened smokers - not a recreational product that would get our kids hooked to nicotine. Instead, what we see is these things being sold right through the community to young people, we hear stories right now as a year 12s are doing their exams, they’re having to put nicotine patches on to be able to get through an exam without taking a vape. This is simply not acceptable, and as governments right across the country, we are determined to stamp this out.
Now I want to thank the ABF for the work they've done here with the TGA and Operation OBELIA. I know, and Minister O'Neil knows, that they need more resources to do this job in a way which I know they want to do. So, we are committed as a government to providing additional resources to ABF and to the TGA to be able to undertake the enforcement operations that we need them to undertake at our borders. But we're also determined to close down these loopholes to make it easier for ABF to do their job, instead of having to sort through these vapes and make an assessment about whether they comply with regulations, whether they don't, they will have a very clear regulatory framework that says these disposable vapes are not allowed to be imported into Australia at all. The law will be completely clear for the ABF to be able to do their job. And they'll have additional resources as well.
AUSTRALIAN BORDER FORCE COMMISSIONER MICHAEL OUTRAM APM: Thank you, Minister, I will firstly thank you very much. Operation OBELIA occurred during the month of October, with the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the Australian Border Force seized 35 tonnes of illicit vapes in that one month, eight and a half tonnes are behind us here. And of course, as the Minister just said, out of those that have been examined 92% actually contained nicotine, highly addictive nicotine. And those vapes are not marked up as containing nicotine, or in some cases, were deliberately misleading in that they said that they didn't contain nicotine. Now, as the Minister has said, there's some logistical challenges for us when we now have to store these goods in this kind of facility you see here, and work out how we dispose of these goods, they obviously have batteries and plastic and chemicals - horrible chemicals - and metal and glass. So, we're working through that process now.

We welcome the support of the government. We welcome the partnership with the TGA. There's much more we can do in this space. And I think a border ban by itself, as I said, won't work but provided that comes in conjunction with other measures in the states and territories, which this will, then you can be highly effective in terms of really reducing or limiting this market. And in fact, the opportunity has been taken by organised crime in some cases to addict young people. So, thank you, Minister, I really appreciate this work.
JOURNALIST: What can we see behind us, we’ve got, I guess, these black wrapping and boxes, and then open ones, can you talk me through the difference there?
COMMISSIONER OUTRAM: You've got two kinds of vapes, you've got the disposable vapes as the Minister mentioned, they're the ones that come in sort of one piece and you just throw them away at the end. And then there are those where you can replace the nicotine product, they're the ones that were really designed for people who were addicted to cigarettes and get a nicotine addiction. So, there are different types of vapes coming in, but you can see on the table here, that's a representation of what's in those pallets, on that table you will see disposable vapes that contain fruit flavoured things and mint flavoured things, and they've got cartoon characters on there, that are clearly aimed the marketing of young people, not people who are addicted to cigarettes. And so that's representative on the table there of what’s in all those pallets behind us. And if you imagine, that's just eight and a half tonnes of the 35 we seized in four weeks, and that's across the entire country. Most were coming in through New South Wales - through Sydney, Victoria was the next largest, and of course, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, as well. But we know that we're not finding everything, there's a lot.
JOURNALIST: I was going to ask, so this operation was just focusing on items that are coming in that are declared as vapes of some kind?
COMMISSIONER OUTRAM: In some cases no, in some cases they weren't declared at all. And we were able to work with some partners in industry to identify consignments coming into the country that weren't marked appropriately. So, what we will do now is we will develop intelligence and profile so that we can better find these commodities at the border with them being misdescribed. Because obviously, what people do when they're going to smuggle drugs and other things into our countries, they try and conceal them. We will now turn our mind to how we can find vapes that have been concealed in other consignments.
JOURNALIST: Commissioner, do we have an idea of how many tonnes of vapes are actually making it past Border Force?
COMMISSIONER OUTRAM: Not at this point in time. Now, obviously, with the illicit drug market it is slightly different, because the wastewater analysis conducted by the ACIC, and other data points – the Illicit Drug Data Report - gives us a sort of a rough order of magnitude sense of what volume of drugs and narcotics being consumed, and what we're seizing. We don't have that yet.
JOURNALIST: Okay, but would it be fair to say that this is quite a small portion of the vapes that are getting through?
COMMISSIONER OUTRAM: In my experience with smugglers is that we will never find everything, let me put it that way. So, there’ll be some vapes getting past, no doubt.
JOURNALIST: Minister just for you. So, we've got two figures here. We've got 92% of these products are unlawful, we’ve got 85% that were found to contain nicotine. So, does that mean that some percentages of these products are being found unlawful in other ways beyond just mislabelling?
MINISTER BUTLER: My understanding is that as the Commissioner said, the TGA found that more than 90% of the vapes that were tested by the TGA contain nicotine in spite of the fact that they were not labelled as such. Indeed, in some cases, as Commissioner said, they were actually labelled as non-nicotine vapes. This is very consistent with the work TGA has done now for some time. Well over 90% of vapes that are customarily tested by TGA labs contain nicotine and frankly, we all understand why - that is that vapes are a nicotine product -  and to pretend that there is some market out there for non-nicotine vapes is a fantasy. It's a fantasy intended to disguise the fact that this market has been set up to work around the existing regulations, and that is why we are determined to stamp out the market in its entirety.
JOURNALIST: You announced the ban on disposable vapes in May. Do you have a timeline on when that will be able to be enforced?
BUTLER: The first thing we need to do is put in place an import control regulation that allows the ABF to do its work much more efficiently, it closes those loopholes that I've talked about that allow vapes to come in if they're non-nicotine vapes, and what that essentially has done is for importers to label their vapes as non-nicotine, even when they obviously contain nicotine. So, we will put in that import control regulation in place by the end of the year.
JOURNALIST: So, when will people see convenience stores, for example, removing these things from their shelves?
BUTLER: The first thing we need to do is stop the supplier to the extent we can, as the Commissioner said, illegal stuff always finds a way to get through at some level. But what we want to do is make sure that there is a regulation in place to stop the supply of these things coming in in the first place from overseas, then we need to work with states to have a comprehensive regulatory framework that they will also be able to enforce as state authorities and we can do that through a single piece of legislation at a Commonwealth level. And we intend to do that over the course of next year.
JOURNALIST: Would you describe this being able to import nicotine free vapes, is that kind of the biggest loophole that the ABF is battling against?
MINISTER BUTLER: That is absolutely the loophole. And it means that around the country, whether it's at the border on imports, or through convenience stores and vape stores, there is this fiction that all of these vapes are being sold as non-nicotine vapes, when we know absolutely that is not true. Whenever they are tested, whether they're tested at the border, or whether they're tested from retail stores at the state level, well more than 90% of them end up having significant amounts of nicotine in them. And that's really because that's the product, that's what Big Tobacco wanted to do when it developed this product. They want to recruit a new generation of nicotine addicts, and tragically, it's clearly working at the moment. And were determined to stamp it out.
JOURNALIST: What penalties will there be for retailers who are found with nicotine vapes?
MINISTER BUTLER: Those arrangements will become clear in due course as we prepare and release the draft legislation.
JOURNALIST: Why will the COVID Inquiry now examine how evidence informed decisions such as lockdowns in different jurisdictions, when the scope that you previously announced clearly states the actions taken unilaterally by state and territory governments aren't part of this Inquiry?
MINISTER BUTLER: I was very clear when we announced the COVID Inquiry that the terms of reference explicitly include the examination of health response measures through the pandemic and that obviously would include public health and social measures that range from lockdowns to density requirements, social distancing requirements, school closures, border closures, and the like. It would be extraordinary for an inquiry not to examine the operation of those measures. And so that's been made clear by the inquiry committee. But it's something that I was very clear about when we announced the Inquiry. Now, that does not mean the Inquiry has got to go through every one of the thousands and thousands of decisions that individual state governments took. But it is appropriate that the Inquiry looks the way in which that broad system of public health and social measures, along with other health response measures, operated through a once in a century pandemic.
JOURNALIST: The bipartisan Senate Inquiry into ADHD is recommending that federal government develops a national framework around the condition. Will you do that?
MINISTER BUTLER: The Senate report on ADHD was only tabled last night. I haven't yet had an opportunity to go through it. We'll obviously be examining the recommendations very closely. This was an inquiry that attracted a lot of interest from the community, from members of the community, people who have been diagnosed with ADHD, their families and clinicians as well. So, it is an important landmark Inquiry that we take very seriously. We'll be looking through those recommendations over time. What we've also done though, to your point, is see new clinical guidelines on ADHD only published last month, these were endorsed by the National Health and Medical Research Council, they will provide substantial assistance to health professionals right across the system in providing treatment, care, and support to Australians living with ADHD. So, there is more to do, but we are already putting in place new supports for consumers, for families, and importantly for clinicians as well, to support Australians with ADHD. But the Senate Inquiry will be an important addition to recommendations that government can consider as we provide those better supports in the future.
JOURNALIST: So just to be clear that is something you’ll consider, it’s just a bit too early to commit to?
MINISTER BUTLER: This was a 400-page report delivered last night, I haven't had an opportunity yet to look through it. But obviously, my department and I will be considering the report very closely.
JOURNALIST: Can you provide an update on how many GP clinics are now offering bulk billing that weren’t before after the incentives took effect?
MINISTER BUTLER: The new incentives took effect last Wednesday. We don't have data over the last six days. But what was very clear when we announced this measure in May, is that GP leaders, particularly the College of General Practice, described this as a ‘game changer.’ The tripling of the bulk billing incentive for GP consultations was exactly what the general practice community had asked the government to do. We did it in May, because we are so concerned about the state of general practice after a decade of cuts and neglect. What this will do is it will lift the income to general practices in the cities by more than a third for general practice standard consultations for kids under the age of 16, concession card holders, and pensioners. That’s some 11 million Australians that on average accounts for maybe 60% of the throughput of the average general practice. That income lift is even greater in regional Australia, a place like Cessnock here in New South Wales or Dubbo will see their income go up by 50% for those bulk build standard consults, so this is a huge boost to funding and the confidence of general practice after a very difficult decade for them. And we're very confident from the sort of anecdotal evidence we're getting already from practices, that this is either leading them to return to bulk billing those Australians if they've moved away from it, or if they were considering a move away from bulk billing has reaffirmed their commitment to continue it in the future.
JOURNALIST: On bulk billing some states will now make GPs pay payroll tax, and the College itself has said that that will push up prices again, will you talk to the State Health Ministers when you meet with them on this topic about those changes?
MINISTER BUTLER: I meet and talk with my state health minister colleagues very regularly. We have a meeting later this week, again, we'll be considering vaping regulations among many, many other things. And I've made it very clear that the more than $6 billion of new investments in Medicare that were announced in our May Budget are intended to strengthen Medicare. And I'd be very concerned that any of those funds we're not going to delivering better and more affordable care in general practice, and instead, we're being diverted, if you like, to state treasury, through new payroll tax arrangements. I've made my position very clear, ultimately, at the end of the day, payroll tax arrangements are set by state governments. But I do encourage state health ministers and state treasurers to listen very closely to general practice representatives about what these new arrangements might mean for those practices. There are very good examples around the country of state governments doing that, including here in New South Wales. I encourage all states to do that, and to be very careful about the way in which new payroll tax arrangements might impact such an important part of our healthcare system.
JOURNALIST: When will you have that data that shows how many more GPs are offering bulk billing to Australians?
MINISTER BUTLER: When I came to government, I asked the Department to be much more detailed in the way in which we reported bulk billing data, including out of general practice. So, you do see those data coming through much more regularly than was the case before we came to government. It won't be long before those numbers start to be reported, but already, as I said, we're getting very strong anecdotal feedback from individual practices reporting a change in their approach to bulk billing as a result of our historic investments that came into effect last week. Thanks, everyone.

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