NIKOLAI BEILHARZ, HOST: Mark Butler is the Health Minister, a South Australian Federal MP and joins you. Minister, good morning to you.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Good morning, how are you?
BEILHARZ: Good, good. So, you’ve announced a pretty significant jump in the excise of cigarettes, how many people are going to stop smoking cigarettes now that a pack what could be 50 bucks in a couple of years?
BUTLER: Hopefully a lot. We know that a price signal is a really important part of the suite of measures that governments put in place to try and help people quit the cigarettes. We're down to about 10% of the adult population smoking regularly now, and that's a huge achievement from where it was a few decades ago, but we want to drive that down further. That's the target that all governments – state, territory and Commonwealth – have decided upon and the problem we were facing over the last couple of years is that the excise being essentially frozen was actually seeing cigarettes start to reduce in price in real terms. We have to continue to send that price signal to encourage people to give up cigarettes and I was also particularly concerned to make sure that as we crack down on vaping, which I'm sure we'll be talking about shortly, we don't see the possibility, particularly of young people, moving from vapes to cigarettes as well.
STACEY LEE, HOST: Yeah, why not just have the tax increases on cigarettes go up in line with inflation. I mean, we see everything else go up, our grocery bills, interest rates, rents are going up, why not just have it go up consistently every year?
BUTLER: Because, as I said, there is a health imperative to try and send a price signal to discourage people from smoking. Over the term of the last government that just lost power, excise increased by well over 100%, unfortunately none of that was actually put back into tobacco control programs, it was all simply banked on the bottom line. We think there is a very strong health reason to continue to raise the price of cigarettes. Across the world, health experts recognise that is one part of the suite of policies you need to put in place to encourage people to give up this incredibly dangerous, ultimately for so many people, lethal habit.
LEE: Let's move on to vaping now, Minister, because there were some changes that you outlined yesterday. Why won't you consider regulating vaping like cigarettes so the people who do purchase them purchase them in a controlled environment, there's an age limit, and then it is likely there will be fewer young people being able to buy them and use them illegally because at the moment the ones they're smoking are illegal anyway?
BUTLER: Yeah, but they're buying them from convenience stores. They are buying them from tobacconists and some petrol stations. I'm not going to buy into essentially a position being driven by tobacco industry lobbyists to normalise a product that essentially is designed to create a new generation of nicotine addicts. But step back a few years, Stacey, this product was sold to governments around the world – not just Australia – but around the world and to communities around the world as a therapeutic product that would help long-term smokers kick the habit. It was not sold as a recreational product particularly not sold as a recreational product that would be used by kids and teenagers and very young adults, but that's what it has become. And instead of becoming a pathway out of smoking, which is what it was sold to us as, it's become a pathway into smoking because we know that vapers are 3 times more likely to take up cigarettes as non-vapers...
LEE: Yeah, and that’s not the case now, and vapes are banned now, aren’t they? Unless you’ve got a prescription from a doctor, there is a ban in place on vaping?
BUTLER: There’s not really, there’s been no enforcement put in place over the last several years...
LEE: But technically, they’re banned.
BUTLER: You might say technically, Stacey but go out on the street and have a look for yourself, talk to some school communities and ask them whether they think vaping is banned. This thing has flourished and a big reason why...
LEE: Sorry, I’m not talking about what actually happens because we all know they're out on the street and people are buying them, as you say, from service stations, from actual specific vaping shops that have been set up. But if we look at the rules, are vapes banned unless you get a prescription from a doctor?
BUTLER: The problem with the position that was put in place by the former government...
LEE: Minister, the question was are they banned right now?
BUTLER: If you let me finish, Stacey, the problem was that there was no import control. Greg Hunt, to his credit, my predecessor as Health Minister tried to put in place a control that would stop the imports of nicotine vapes that would essentially be sold in the way that we've seen them being sold over the last few years. What that meant is Australia was flooded by nicotine vapes and they're being sold very regularly through traditional retail settings, but also, frankly, through some vape stores that deliberately have been set up down the road from schools because they know that is their target audience.
So when we did a consultation over the course of summer, what experts, what doctors’ groups told us was the critical start point to regulating this industry was to put in place an import restriction so that you could only import these things if you could demonstrate to the Therapeutic Goods Administration that they were going to be sold through a pharmacy only, on prescription by a health professional, and that they complied with new standards. So, an end to these pink unicorn covered vapes that are bubble gum flavoured, that everyone understands are pitched towards teenagers and young children without a therapeutic purpose.
BEILHARZ: But that’s where the problem lies, isn’t it? They are still there. So, sorry, to return to Stacey’s question, so, they are banned, or they aren’t banned?
BUTLER: There is a ban at pretty much every state level as I understand it against selling vapes to under 18-year-olds. The problem is that we haven't stopped them at the border. State and territory governments have quite reasonably said for the last couple of years: how can you expect us to police this thing when the borders are completely open? What we've said is we will do our job as a Commonwealth Government and put an import control in place so the only way importers can legally bring these vapes into the country are if they comply with TGA standards and are designated for sale only through a pharmacy, not through a convenience store, or a vape store, but after sale through a pharmacy on prescription by a health professional.
That's the thing that the Commonwealth Government didn't do last time. Now, to his credit, as I was trying to say, Greg Hunt tried to do that, he put in place that import control regulation, but unfortunately there was a revolution in his party room and it was overturned within 2 weeks. So, that's when we lost control of this thing, and that's why we now have it flourishing among our younger Australians and creating really serious health challenges for them.
LEE: So, Minister under these changes, at the moment if you walk down Hindley Street on a Friday or Saturday night, the street smells like watermelon and bubble gum and even inside venues because sometimes it's easier to conceal a vape rather than a cigarette. But all those people who are using those illegal vapes are breaking the law, will there be enforcement of that in the future under your changes, or will you be enforcing the penalties purely for the outlets that are selling them? Could we see 18-year-old kids on Hindley Street getting a fine for using an illegal vape?
BUTLER: I don’t think any state has a law in place that penalises people using vapes. The laws focus on vendors, not on people, not on customers, certainly not on kids, and that's what we want to see enforced. The Health Ministers of states and territories and I met a couple of days ago, including Chris Picton, we unanimously agreed to task our officials with starting work immediately on the regulations that will have to be in place at state level, as well as Commonwealth level to enforce this new regime.
But I want to be really clear that we’re going after the vendors, those are the ones, I think, as well as the importers, who have created this problem, not the customers themselves, certainly not young people. All of us basically have been duped, not just here in Australia, across the world, by an industry who pretended this was going to be a therapeutic product to help long-term smokers kick the habit and instead have created a huge health challenge for our younger citizens.
LEE: And do you know how many fines have been issued to vendors illegally selling these items?
BUTLER: In South Australia, or across the country? You’d have to ask the South Australian Government that, but there is a strong commitment that all jurisdictions level to finally get this thing under control. And what was needed was the Commonwealth Government to come to the party and show leadership here, and unfortunately, Greg Hunt, although I think he had the best of intentions and understood how dangerous this phenomenon was, wasn't able to get his party room over the line but that's changed. And we've got a very strong level of agreement across jurisdictions now to take this head on.
LEE: So, under this new agreement will we see those vendors being fined for illegally selling them?
BUTLER: We're going to sit down and work out what the penalty regime is going to be, but there's going to have to be a set of strong penalties against vendors who breach this new law, you know, we want to see this stamped out, there should not be a product being sold in retail settings to kids alongside lollies and chocolates.
LEE: And who will enforce it, Minister? Will it be a job for state police, or who would do it?
BUTLER: We’re going to have to put significant resources in place at the Commonwealth level through Border Force, also through the TGA – The Therapeutic Goods Administration – but there will also have to be enforcement resources put in place at a state and territory level to make sure that the retail settings we've talked about aren’t breaching the law as well. We've got to sit down with states and territories now we've made this decision and work through that quickly, but obviously in a careful way.
BEILHARZ: Now that you've made this decision, how long will it take to come into place? Because I can imagine if you are somebody that uses these products, you might think: I better go to the shops and stock up while I can. There could be a rush.
BUTLER: We hope that doesn't happen, but we made a very clear decision the other day as Health Ministers that this was a priority for all jurisdictions, now, obviously there may need to be legal change put in place – some through parliaments – we're certainly going to have to put some stuff through the Federal Parliament. This isn't going to be able to happen overnight but there's a very strong determination by Health Ministers across the country to do this as a matter of urgency.
LEE: Okay. Minister, thank you for your time.