Minister for Health and Aged Care - press conference - 8 May 2024

Read the transcript of Minister Butler and Minister Wells' press conference on peak health bodies joining the Government fight against vaping; aged care; AstraZeneca.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MINISTER FOR AGED CARE AND SPORT, ANIKA WELLS: Good morning everyone, can I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners the Lands on which we gathered this morning, the Turrbal and Yuggera people and give our respect to their Elders past, present and emerging. Together, we stand on the shoulders of 1,600 generations of First Nations people, and that is our shared history. I'd like to thank our distinguished guests who join us this morning and to Australian Border Force Assistant Commissioner James Copeman, for welcoming us here, as well as all of his and his team's exceptional work to halt the scourge of vaping. It's a great pleasure to welcome you all here to the boundaries of Lilley, we stand at the doors to the kingdom, and to welcome my very excellent senior minister, the Federal Minister for Health Mark Butler for an historic announcement today. The very first time our frontline health bodies are uniting in support of the Government’s vaping reports.
We stand on the edge of my electorate, where vaping is a really big concern for families. Families want their kids to stop being targeted, and schools and teachers want their students to stop being on the path to harden smoking, and that's what these people can do, and that's why the Albanese Government is determined to fight and to take up that fight to Big Tobacco to stop the illegal import of vapes. I don't know if you knew this, but the under 25s is actually the only demographic where the rate of smoking is increasing. This is a huge problem. We’re determined to tackle it. In Queensland, it has a particular impact. There have been 180,000 devices seized in Queensland, 25,000 products, in addition to that, and just in April 80,000 devices have been seized in Queensland and more than 2,600 vaping devices and are being seized per day, here in our very city in Brisbane. We've got to do something about it, and that's why we're calling on our colleagues in Canberra back in Parliament next week, to join us and support our vaping reforms in the Parliament. Let's take vaping back to its original purpose, which is helping addicts smokers as prescribed by their doctors. So please, let me hand over to my tremendous senior Minister Mark Butler, for more on today's historic announcement.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thank you, Anika, and thank you for having us and for all of the amazing work you're doing as the Aged Care Minister and Australia's Sports Minister, in these really exciting eight years leading into Brisbane hosting the Olympics. Anika is right, we're here to talk about a very serious public health menace that's particularly targeting younger Australians and that is the issue of vaping.

The Albanese Government, with a whole range of other public health groups and experts, including the three who are represented here today, have made it very clear that we intend to stamp out vaping. Vaping was presented to our community and to communities right around the world some years ago, as a therapeutic good, a therapeutic good that would help harden smokers who had smoked for decades, finally kick the habit after they have tried a whole range of other first and second line nicotine replacement therapies. What we know several years into this experiment, though, is that vaping is nothing more or less than an insidious device to recruit a new generation to nicotine addiction. You just have to look at the products that are behind me, they're brightly coloured, many of them have cartoon characters on the front of them, and they have these ridiculously childlike flavours like bubble gum and all of those sorts of things. You also only have to look at where they're being sold, nine out of 10 vaping stores have set up within walking distance of our schools, and that's no accident, it is a deliberate decision because this industry recognises that school kids are their target market. As Anika said, providing a gateway to cigarette smoking, which tragically is already coming to pass. Our Government has a multi-phase program to stamp out vaping, and the first phase of those reforms took effect on the 1st of January, which was to put in place an import ban on disposable vapes coming into this country. Border Force and the Therapeutic Goods Administration or TGA, were provided with substantial additional resources in last year's Budget to enforce this ban, and the future ban that we hope will pass the Parliament in coming weeks as well. I'm really delighted to say that in just the first few months since January, more than 1.5 million illegal vapes have been seized by the Australian Border Force, and by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. That's 1.5 million vapes taken out of the hands of our kids and very, very young adults. It is starting to choke off supply of these vapes to vaping retailers, and we're hearing that anecdotally already in Australia. There are reports out of China, in the vaping industry press, there is a vaping industry press in that country, that exports to Australia have dropped by as much as 93 per cent. Now, we haven't been able to verify that, but clearly this ban that we put in place in January, is starting to have the effect that we'd hoped, which was to choke off supply to the retailers who are putting these vapes in the hands of Australian school children and young adults.
The next phase of our vaping reforms needs to pass the Parliament over the next couple of months. Our Government, along with state and territory Governments right across the country, Liberal and Labor alike, are determined to outlaw the sale, the supply, and the manufacture of vapes in this country other than those vapes that are pre-approved as Therapeutic Goods Available on prescription from doctors through pharmacy stores. What that will see, is those vape stores that have opened down the road from your local school, they will shut. What that will see is convenience stores that are making money out of selling vapes to kids, that has to stop, they have to return to their original business. We are determined that to the extent this is a therapeutic good, it should be returned to the proper therapeutic pathway, that is through doctors prescribing this where they think of will have a good therapeutic purpose, and pharmacists filling those scripts in the community pharmacies that plays such an important role as the gateway to good health for the Australian community.
I'm really delighted to be joined here today by the three peak organisations that represent the frontline in tobacco and nicotine control. They've done this work for 50 years since Australia first started its battle against the scourge of tobacco, and all of the public health impacts and the death’s that have been involved over decades and decades. Our community pharmacies represented by Trent Twomey, the National President of the Pharmacy Guild, our doctors represented by the College of General Practice and their President, Nicole Higgins and also by the AMA’s Vice President and General Practitioner, Danielle McMullen. I do note that those three leaders of our public health institutions here in Australia, are all working in Queensland, they are all Queenslanders, the levers of Australia's public health system are now in the hands of Queensland that I'm sure we'll be pleasing to everyone in this room. I am delighted that those three key organisations, that represent the frontline in this fight for better health are getting behind our Government's reforms to stamp out the scourge of vaping. The Parliament has a huge opportunity over the coming couple of months to do something that makes a real and meaningful difference to the health of young Australians. I hope that my Parliamentary colleagues will take up that challenge and that opportunity. I'm going to hand out to Acting Assistant Commissioner Copeland from Australian Border Force, and then we'll hear from the three public health organisations.
AUSTRALIAN BORDER FORCE ASSISTANT COMMISSIONER JAMES COPERMAN: Good morning all, welcome to our container examination facility here in Brisbane. Since January 2024, the Australian Border Force here in Queensland, has now seized a total of 227,000 vape devices and 27,000 vaping accessories, and substances through our traveller, cargo and mail streams. Nationally, the ABF has seized now more than 767,000 devices with an estimated street value of $23 million. In addition to that, there has been over 92,000 vape accessories that have been seized. This sends a strong message to all Australian suppliers of vape products that they should not import these goods anymore, and if they do, there will be consequences to that your goods will be detected and will be seized and destroyed. Thank you.
PRESIDENT OF THE ROYAL AUSTRALIAN COLLEGE OF GENERAL PRACTITIONERS, DR NICOLE HIGGINS: Hello, I’m Dr Nicole Higgins, President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, which represents 40,000 GPs, and GPs in training. I'm a GP in North Queensland, Mackay and I’m also a mother of three teenagers. Big Tobacco has created a new generation of people addicted to nicotine, and it has been marketed to our kids. It's been sold as bubble gum flavour and unicorn devices, it's been sold as harmless to our kids, but vaping isn't harmless. What vaping does is it hurts our kids lungs, it increases their risk of having nicotine addiction, and it pollutes our environment. It's been marketed as a safe alternative to cigarette smoking, but we know that vaping has now created a new generation of nicotine dependent Australians. Anyone who's tried to give up cigarette smoking knows how hard it is, and now we have to get people off vapes, and that that's not easy without the support of your healthcare team around you. Vapes are a second line tool for nicotine replacement therapy, there are other alternatives, and that's also the behavioural support that's required. With my colleagues and my healthcare team that sit behind us, we're here to support the reform from the Government that will be coming through next week, and we urge all politicians to stop the vapes. Thank you very much.
NATIONAL PRESIDENT OF THE PHARMACY GUILD, PROFESSOR TRENT TWOMEY: Professor Trent Twomey, National President, the Pharmacy Guild of Australia. I stand here today, both very proud to stand with my medical colleagues, but also very fearful, for as our Border Force have just said, over 220,000 of these nicotine vaping products have been confiscated, just in Queensland alone, this calendar year. The pharmacists of Australia see those 227,000 confiscated poisons, as opportunities to addict a new generation of our patients to nicotine. Now, Australia's 6,000 community pharmacies stand ready, willing, and able to work with both the Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments to not only keep vapes out of the hands of our children, but also to provide greater access to smoking cessation. These are the two things that we're calling on Governments to do not only to restrict the access, as they are doing, to keep these things out of the hands of our children, but also to increase the accessibility of smoking cessation alternatives. Thank you.
VICE-PRESIDENT OF THE AUSTRALIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION, DR DANIELLE MCMULLEN: Thank you, I'm Dr Danielle McMullen, Vice President of the AMA. We stand here today united as Government, health professionals, and Border Force to urge the passage of reform, to protect the health of Australians, and particularly to protect our children. As a GP, I have seen in my clinic teenagers addicted to vapes concerned about their nicotine addiction; having difficulties sleeping, having difficulties focusing at school, and really wondering what to do next, when vapes are such a problem in their school environment, and so easy to access.
We know that quitting is hard, we know that nicotine cessation is hard, as GPs we see it every day and it's the bread and butter of our work to help people with substance use. It's why having a prescription model for vapes is an integral part of this Government policy platform to make sure that when appropriate, people who do need to use vapes to stop their nicotine addiction and to come off of vaping or smoking will have an option to do so. We know that seeing a GP can be difficult, but we would rather see your now. GPs as busy as we are, doctors would much rather see you now to talk about your substance use, talk about your vaping, talk about your smoking, than to see you in 10 or 20 years-time when cancers and other ill health effects have taken hold and are much harder to treat. We have an opportunity now to protect the next generation of Australians, and I urge everyone to get behind this vaping reform and make sure we get vapes out of the hands of kids and protect the next generation of Australians.
JOURNALIST: Question for Minister Butler, the Government’s crackdown on vaping has been ongoing for quite some time, has there been some reluctance from frontline health bodies to get on board? Why is it really happened now?
BUTLER: We’ve certainly been planning the reforms for some time, consulting with some of public health experts the Border Force control experts, and I’ve been working with my colleagues at State and Territory level. I do want to say this, this import ban has only been in place for a few months, since it took effect on the 1st of January, and the ban on sale and supply hasn't even passed the Parliament. That's why we're all here urging our Parliamentary colleagues to consider supporting this legislation when it comes back before the House of Representatives next week, and then it will move, we hope, to the Senate.
There's a Senate inquiry that's been underway around this legislation, which we understand will be reporting this week before we all return to Parliament. This is still relatively new, this package of reforms, I've had strong support from all public health organisations, including the three leading organisations that are here today, over the past 18 months, as we've been deliberating, and then designing this reform package.  
JOURNALIST: The report you talk about hurts a lot of suppliers, and the retail side of the, we see shops everywhere they are selling illegal cigarettes and vapes. How does this reform potentially tackle that side?
BUTLER: The laws that we have before the Federal Parliament will make it illegal to sell vapes, if you are a store. The only way in which vapes will be able to be sold legally in Australia if these laws pass the Parliament, will be in a community pharmacy on prescription by a doctor or a nurse practitioner. The vapes will have to have been pre-authorised by the TGA and by Government, they will need to demonstrate they have prescribed nicotine levels and demonstrate a range of other things relating to their chemicals content. For those stores, beyond community pharmacy, those retail outlets that are selling vapes either as their central part of their business, the vaping stores, or as a part of a broader business, the convenience stores and such like, if these laws passed the Parliament, the first of July, you will not be able to sell vapes, and there will be very, very serious penalties in the laws, if you do so those penalties range from prison terms of up to seven years and fines of up to $2.2 million. We are serious about stamping this public health menace of recreational vaping out.
JOURNALIST: Do you feel like you have enough support for this legislation to pass through Parliament?
BUTLER: We've not received a clear indication yet from the Liberal Party about their view on this legislation. But hopefully we'll get that, as the Senate inquiry reports over the coming day or two, as I understand it. Mr Dutton, the Leader of the Opposition made some reasonably encouraging signs when we started to talk about the feedback we were getting from school communities and parents. As Anika Wells pointed out. this is now the number one behavioural issue that school communities right across the country report. Parents are besides themselves about the speed with which this has become such a problem among teenage and young adult Australia, but increasingly in primary schools as well. I do urge Mr Dutton to take a constructive view about this legislation. The National Party, from actually even before I announced the detail of this report, said that they weren't up for it, and given the degree to which they communicate regularly with the tobacco industry, that's perhaps not surprising. I am still hopeful that Mr Dutton will see the level of community support out there for strong action. We're seeing this strong action right around the world as well, as other countries start to come to grips with the scale of this public health challenge for their young citizens, as well as the young Australians here in our own country.
JOURNALIST: Minister, why have a blanket ban on the sale and supply of vapes and not cigarettes?
BUTLER: For 50 years now Australia has had really world leading tobacco control efforts to try and bring down those rates of smoking. But 50 years ago, were, frankly astronomical. As much as sort of three quarters of adult males were daily smokers, 50 or 60 years ago, we now have that rate down to around 11, or 12 per cent, one of the lowest daily smoking rates in the world. That really is a testament to the courage and the vision of a range of Governments, but particularly public health organisations like those represented behind me today who have been steadfast over all of that time. We renewed our efforts to continue to drive down those smoking rates with legislation we passed in the Parliament late last year, and without tobacco strategy that seeks to get that rate down to 5 per cent by the end of this decade. We're not going to let the foot off the accelerator on cigarette smoking at all, we are determined to see that continue to drive down. Vaping is in a different category, though, it's still a relatively new technology, it's one that's targeted, particularly at one cohort in the community, young Australians. We think it serves absolutely no purpose beyond a very narrow therapeutic purpose which should be confined to doctors’ rooms and to pharmacy outlets.
JOURNALIST: Do you feel like the influencer lead youth campaign has had much of a difference so far?
BUTLER: We were determined to get onto the playing field that young Australians watch, and that is social media, that is TikTok. They're not reading newspapers, they're not watching TV in the way in which older generations are doing. Given the degree to which the tobacco industry uses social media to promote their harmful products and their harmful messages, we took the view that we have a responsibility to counter those messages with healthy messages from influencers that young Australians watch, and young Australians respect. That campaign is still relatively new, we'll evaluate it in due course, but we're determined it is the right thing to do.
JOURNALIST: Minister, can I just ask you a question on aged care? What can we expect in the Budget? Will it be funding increases for things like Home Care Packages?
WELLS: You're asking me to take my life into your hands to pre-announce ahead of the Treasurer having that privilege on Tuesday. What I would say is, you won't be surprised to see or to hear me say that we've been doing a huge amount of work on aged care. Some of which is already in the public domain, and some of which that will come out shortly, particularly with respect to home care. We are bringing in a whole new support system that will be a part of the new Aged Care Act, we're hoping to introduce soon. An entirely new basis for the way that people will receive their care. We know that they want to receive it at home, we know that the system as it currently is set up, it's not geared to do that, we know that people need better services, and they need to be able to stay at home much longer than they currently are able to do. We've been doing all of that work, including thorough discussions with the Opposition about what that might look like. Thank you for your interest in aged care and watch this space.
JOURNALIST: Might be a question for Border Force or possibly the Minister of Health. Just on those vape numbers, we've had the 1.5 million vape seized since January 1. I've also heard 767,000, can we just clarify that?
BUTLER: The figure I used of more than 1.5 million, is the combination of vape seized by Border Force, which I think is in the order of 700,000, and the vapes seized by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Both of them have authority to conduct seizures, ABF conducts them at the border, and TGA conducts them if they've managed to get over the border and into the community somewhere. Both of them received substantial additional resourcing from the Government in the Budget last year in 2023, to do their enforcement work, and they are doing absolutely terrific job.
JOURNALIST: Do we know which state had the highest seizure of vapes?
BUTLER: That really reflects generally the size of the port. Melbourne has Australia's biggest port, a lot of the seizures are down in Melbourne, given that has the highest level of container activity in the country. Generally, it tends to reflect the size of the ports from ABS point of view, in the terms of the activity of the Therapeutic Goods Administration that is also distributed across the country.
JOURNALIST: For Border Force, given that you see so many illicit materials and drugs sort of come through the Australian Border Force, where do vapes sort of place on that at the moment? I understand you get drugs like cocaine, that sort of thing, are they are they pretty high?
COPERMAN: Absolutely, with the additional funding that Government has provided we do have an additional focus on vapes, but we have not taken our eye off the ball when it comes to border control drugs and other products of importance.
JOURNALIST: Can I, whilst you’re there ask, about the other illegal boats in Torres Strait overnight. Can you talk about that at all?
COPERMAN: I'm not in a position to be able to comment on some operational matters at the moment. But what I can say is that we work very closely with our Papua New Guinean colleagues to make sure that any illegal activity through the Torres Strait and PNG villages is stamped out.
JOURNALIST: Not sure if it's one for you, but why are so many boats still slipping through it?
COPERMAN: I’m not in a position to comment on it.
JOURNALIST: Just a question for the Minister for Health, can you confirm AstraZeneca is withdrawing its COVID vaccine, if it's happening worldwide in Australia and when will that happen?
BUTLER: AstraZeneca took a decision to withdraw its first generation COVID vaccine from Australia quite some time ago. It hasn't been available in Australia for a considerable period of time. That's no surprise really it was the first-generation vaccine and has been superseded by a range of newer vaccines that particularly targeted the newer variants, most recently the Omicron variant. I received my first dose of COVID vaccine as an AstraZeneca shot, it protected hundreds of millions of people across the world, and saved millions of lives, I thank AstraZeneca for that, but I know they've withdrawn their product from Australia some time ago. I've I understand their reports this morning that they've now taken this decision to withdraw the vaccine globally, and that's not really any surprise given it wasn't it was a first-generation vaccine.
JOURNALIST: Is it a failure of Australia's drug approval process? What will be done to ensure something similar doesn't happen in the future?
BUTLER: Sorry, what is a failure? Are you talking about AstraZeneca?
BUTLER: AstraZeneca took a decision to withdraw its vaccine some time ago, I think it was more than 12 months ago, it has really been available in pharmacies in general practice surgeries for even longer than that. It was superseded by new generation vaccines that started to target the variants that emerged over the last few years, most recently, the Omicron variant. It's no surprise really that AstraZeneca is taking that decision.
JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister has agreed that there's no place on our streets for the chant “from the river to the sea”, especially at universities. What do you make of that?
BUTLER: I entirely agree with the Prime Minister and support the position he's put about this. The Labor Party in Australia has had a long standing position of a two-state solution to the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine and that chant strikes me as fundamentally inconsistent with that long standing position. Thanks very much.

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