CHRIS O’KEEFE, HOST: Mark Butler, the Federal Health Minister is on the line, live and he's been kind enough to give us some time. Minister, thank you.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: No worries, Chris.
O’KEEFE: So, why not just regulate and tax them like you do with cigarettes?
BUTLER: I think we need to go back a few years and just remind ourselves that this product, these vapes, were sold to governments and communities around the world as a therapeutic product. They were a therapy to help long-term smokers kick the habit, just like Nicorette gum or any of the other smoking cessation tools that people have tried over the years. They were never sold, they were never presented as some sort of recreational device that would be particularly marketed to our kids and frankly, that's what they have become. Your listeners would all know, particularly if they've got kids or grandkids of the late primary school or high school age, these things have become rife, and they are so cynically marketed to kids. They have pink unicorns on them, bubble gum flavoured, they're now made to look like highlighter pens or USB sticks so that kids can hide them in their pencil case from their teachers and their parents.
I've never seen anything like it, and it's having a really serious health impact on our youngest Australians. We've seen a new generation of nicotine addicts created by this device that was supposed to help people, instead it's addicting young kids to nicotine and they're much more likely to take up cigarettes. We know that from the research. So far from being a pathway out of smokes, which is what we were told these things would be, they are a pathway into smokes for a new generation who we’d hoped would never have to deal with the health consequences of smoking.
O’KEEFE: How do you know that?
BUTLER: From research, and I’m happy to send it to you, Chris. From research, I know that vapers are three times more likely to take up cigarettes than non-vapers. And this is a young person's thing. I don't know how old you are, but only one in 70 people my age have vaped, one in 70, next to non-existent at my age group - in my 50s. One in four teenagers have smoked, one in six teenagers at early high school have smoked, and they are three times more likely than to take up cigarettes.
O’KEEFE: So, my issue with this is, right, you're trying to put the genie back into the bottle, and that is always very difficult to do, especially with products that are addictive. So why don't you just say: you know what, if you're under 18 you can't buy them, just like you can't buy a packet of cigarettes, just like you can't buy a bottle of wine, or a six-pack of beer or whatever. And then you regulate what's in the vapes, put them next to cigarettes and tax them, plain packaging, whatever you want to do, but just tax them and regulate them, like any other nicotine product?
BUTLER: Yeah, I've seen this suggestion, and it's one particularly supported by the tobacco industry that has always been behind the vapes. But I just don't think the proper thing to do would be to normalise this product that was never sold as a recreational product.
O’KEEFE: Yeah, but it’s already normalised. It’s too late for that.
BUTLER: It’s not too late. Health Ministers across the country don't think it is too late. I don't pretend it’s going to be easy, Chris, this thing has flourished. But, you know, right now it's supposed to be illegal to sell these things to kids under 18 in every single state and territory in the jurisdiction, but four out of five teenagers who have been surveyed – over a thousand of them surveyed by the George Institute in New South Wales, in your state, four out of five said they find it easy to get these things at local retail stores. I mean, some of these vape stores -
O’KEEFE: Sure, but that's -
BUTLER: They’re actually deliberately setting up shop down the road from schools because they know that's their target market.
O’KEEFE: Crack down on them, make it illegal, just like it's illegal for a bottle shop to sell wine and spirits to kids?
BUTLER: I’m just not willing as the nation's Health Minister to normalise this product.
O’KEEFE: Have you ever been addicted to nicotine, have you been a smoker?
BUTLER: No, I haven’t -
O’KEEFE: The problem is – I'm talking from personal experience here, Minister - when you're addicted to nicotine it is so hard to kick and lots of people are now addicted to nicotine because they've been hooked in by vapes. The question I've got is I know you’re saying that people who vape then go to cigarettes, but if they're addicted to nicotine, they're going to want the nicotine hit and cigarettes are legal and accessible?
BUTLER: And we're going to have to put in place arrangements to support those people who've developed the nicotine addiction through vapes, and I have to say, a lot of them are school students. We are getting this from schools all the time, this is now the number one behavioural issue across the country that school communities, particularly high schools, but increasingly primary schools as well are reporting to us. Parents inundated us with submissions to the consultation we set up around this, they are beside themselves not knowing what to do about the fact that often their young teenager, not a 16 or 17-year-old, although that's bad enough, but their young teenager has become addicted to nicotine, can’t wake up in the morning without having a suck of their vape. This is a really serious health issue were confronting, I know you understand that, Chris, but we, as the Health Ministers of the country can't just sit by and have this thing that has exploded over the last three years, particularly exploded during COVID, essentially create a new generation of nicotine addicts after all the hard work that we did as a community, as individual smokers did, as you've just said, Chris, to try and kick the habit of a product that we knew was the biggest killer of Australians.
O’KEEFE: I know a lot of people who've emailed me overnight and that we’ve spoken to anecdotally who say: if the vapes are harder to get and you need a prescription from the GP, and you've got to go to the chemist and all the rest of it, they'll just go, ‘I'll go back to the cigarettes.’ Are you worried about that?
BUTLER: Yeah, I am worried about that. We’ve talked about that quite a lot as a group of Health Ministers. We know that we're going to have to make these things easier to get than they currently are for people who want to use them to quit the cigarettes. We know that it is hard to get into a GP, because not many GPs have the ability to prescribe these things. We are going to look at alternative pathways, for example, whether we can just make them available to be given by pharmacists, like, for example, cold and flu tablets with pseudoephedrine are able to after you have a discussion with pharmacists.
So, I’m very keen to make sure that for people who need these things for therapeutic purposes - to kick the cigarette habit - that we make them as easy as possible to get because right now it is pretty hard.
O’KEEFE: Yeah and the problem is after, you know, half a dozen beers at the pub on a Saturday night and you think: geez, I could use a vape and I haven’t got one, I need a nicotine hit, what am I going to do? You’re going to go buy a packet of cigarettes, Minister?
BUTLER: Look, I’m very alert to that risk, Chris, I really am. And we're thinking through ways in which we make sure that as we get rid of one health threat to young people, and I genuinely think that vaping is a really serious threat to today’s young people.
O’KEEFE: I can't argue with that -
BUTLER: We don't want to see them move on to another health threat, which is cigarettes, and so we've got a whole bunch of other things that we want to do around tobacco, as well.
O’KEEFE: This is my point is that you're in a position now where the genie is out of the bottle, it has become so normalised, do you risk to laying the groundwork for a black market to flourish? I was speaking to someone yesterday, their friend, I think early-20s had bought 1,000 vapes from China and were selling them to his friends and family.
BUTLER: Yeah, and there is already a black market here, there's a black market in tobacco. We know, we don't really know how big it is, because it's difficult to track, but you know we are always alive to the possibility of there being a black market. Our first thing though is to get rid of the regulated market. The fact is kids are able to buy these things not through the black market but through the local convenience store. They're doing it all the time, your listeners know that, they're doing it absolutely all the time. We're going to have to continue to sort of shut down the different access points that young people have for these things. The first place to direct our efforts is the regulated market but obviously we are going to have to look at ways in which these things are sneaking through the border. Obviously, they're not coming in big shipping containers labelled “vapes”, that would be very easy for us to intercept unfortunately.
O’KEEFE: Why can't you just set age limits and just say, hey, if you're a convenience store, if you're a tobacconist yeah, -
BUTLER: There are currently age limits –
O’KEEFE: But why can’t you say if you’re a tobacconist we will send the each state's regulatory teams over and you know what you'll be almost out of business the fine will be that big if you're caught selling this stuff to people who are under age?
BUTLER: There are age limits. They've been in place for years. They're not working. We need a whole comprehensive response by all governments. We've got to stop them coming in at the border. We have to stop them being sold.
One of the real myths about this is that these things are, you know, other than the nicotine, they're not particularly bad for you. They contain, on average, about 200 different chemicals which should just not be in your lungs.
BUTLER: Many of them are the same chemicals that go into helping make weed killer, nail polish remover and things like this. We don't know what the health consequences on the lungs are going to be because they haven't been around long enough, but all of the respiratory experts I talk to say it can't be good. It's not going to be good. If it was good to suck in bubble gum flavour for kids we would have put in asthma puffers to make sure that kids took their puffer more regularly to make than they perhaps currently do, but we didn't because we know it's a bad thing to suck that stuff into your lungs.
O’KEEFE: Minister, I appreciate your time. As I said, I think what you're doing is noble. I'm just not quite sure it’ll work but they'll only be proven in the fullness of time but good on you, appreciate your time.