Podcast interview with Minister Butler and Bension Siebert - The Briefing – 7 March 2024

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Bension Siebert on vaping.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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SACHA BARBOUR GATT, HOST: Hi there, I’m Sacha Barbour Gatt. Welcome to this episode of The Briefing. Well, it is official, this month kicked off the Federal Government's ban on the importation of all non-therapeutic vapes into Australia. Meaning anyone selling vapes now needs a licence to bring it into the country, and if you want to buy a vape you need a prescription to do so. This is part of an ongoing effort from the government to try to fight the growing health impacts of unregulated vapes flooding the market and having potentially lifelong impacts on the health of Australians across the country. But will less accessibility to vapes accidentally push people onto the smokes instead? Federal Health Minister, Mark Butler, joined Bension Siebert to explain why the government is so focused on lasering in on vapes this year.  

BENSION SIEBERT, HOST: Mark Butler, welcome to The Briefing. 


SIEBERT: The Federal Government has now banned all non-therapeutic vapes importing into Australia and you're hoping to outlaw selling them from July. Give us the elevator pitch. Why are you cracking down on vapes?  

BUTLER: This is a serious public health menace particularly targeting young Australians with one simple objective in mind on the part of Big Tobacco, and that is to recruit a new generation to nicotine addiction and tragically, it's been working so we're determined to stamp it out. 

SIEBERT: It's been illegal to access nicotine vapes without a prescription since 2021. Who or what level of government has been responsible for enforcement failure there?   

BUTLER: I think there's been a bit of duck shoving between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments for too long here, with some justification, frankly, from the state and territory point of view. These things were flooding in over our borders because there was no import controls put in place by the former government. State and territory authorities said: “it's very difficult for us to enforce something when they're flooding in from overseas on the one hand, and also there is this loophole that you alluded to about whether or not a vape is a nicotine vape or a non-nicotine vape.”

Almost all of the vapes that were flooding into the country from overseas were either labelled non nicotine or not labelled at all. When there was a seizure, either on the border by Border Force or on the ground by state and territory authorities, that would have to be set up for testing to determine whether or not it was a prohibited sale, or it was okay. We've also decided to close that loophole down. We know, frankly, it was a fantasy, these things almost always contain nicotine vapes - that's why they're on the market, to get the nicotine hit. And from Big Tobacco’s point of view it is to recruit people to be nicotine addiction.   

SIEBERT: According to research commissioned by your department about 20 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds vaped as of last year, it was 2 per cent in 2019. This is a pretty major failure of government policy, isn't it?   

BUTLER: It is and you see it around the world. This thing really got away from us during COVID as it did in many other countries around the world. Let's just step back, this product has really only been on the market for a number of years and it was sold as a therapeutic product. Something that would help hardened smokers who had been smoking cigarettes for decades, generally middle aged and older people to kick a habit that they’ve been trying to kick with more traditional products, like nicotine patches and nicotine gum and all the rest. That was sold as a public good, as a therapeutic product. 

But some years in we now understand exactly what it is. If you have a look at these things, they're brightly coloured, they've got ridiculous bubble gum type flavourings. These are very much targeted at young people and not just young adults talking high school children and increasingly primary school children. Nine out of 10 vape stores are located within walking distance of schools. That's no accident. It's a deliberate commercial decision by these stores because they know that is their target market.   

SIEBERT: We spoke to Jamie Hartmann-Boyce last week, she is an Associate Professor at Oxford and co-author of some of the really high-quality international research about vaping versus smoking. I asked her whether it's reasonable to worry because I'm a person who has a lot of friends who vape and they used to smoke and now they vape. Is it a reasonable thing to worry about that they're going to go back to smoking?  

JAMIE HARTMANN-BOYCE, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OXFORD UNIVERSITY: I'm worried about that too. I think lots of people are worried about that. You know, we know anything that's making someone returned to smoking is not going to be good for their health.   

SIEBERT: So you've banned the import of vapes. You're hoping to stop the sale of vapes in July. How many vapers does the government expect to return to smoking as a result of these policies?   

BUTLER: I will say I share that fear and it's something I've been talking to public health experts and tobacco control experts about since we started this discussion, shortly after I was appointed Health Minister after the 2020 election. The last thing we want to see is the very large number of vapers shift into cigarettes, or in the case of some of them shift back to cigarettes if they were previously smokers. We already know that young vapers are three times as likely to take up cigarettes as non-vapers. So, it is a gateway into cigarettes, and that, frankly, is the strategy of Big Tobacco. It should be no surprise that that's the case.   

But as we go down the path of trying to stamp out the availability of these products, particularly for young people, we have been concerned to make sure that people who do need vapes for therapeutic reasons continue to have that availability. So, to one of your descriptions that we’re banning vapes altogether, that's not strictly right. What we are doing is returning to what the experts describe as a therapeutic pathway. So for people whose doctors or nurse practitioners say: “yes, there a therapeutic reason for you to have access to vaping,” that will still be there.  

What I did a few weeks ago was to broaden the ability for people to go to their doctor, go to their nurse practitioner and say, “look, I'm concerned, I've got a nicotine addiction, I don't want to go back to cigarettes, or I want to get off cigarettes and a vape seems a better alternative for me.” And if the doctor agrees then you will be able to get that through a pharmacy on prescription. But these will be the pharmaceutical style products, they won't have pink unicorns on them, they won't be disposable causing the most awful environmental mess that we’re seeing. They won’t have bubble gum flavours, they will be plain flavours, we will able to regulate the chemicals in them. They will have a prescribed nicotine content rather than the broad variability of nicotine content that we see in the disposable vapes that are coming in right now. And we will return to what we were promised this thing was all about, which was a therapeutic good.   

SIEBERT: Is that something that you got advice on before you announced the policy?   

BUTLER: We had a number of roundtables to look at two things. Firstly, the plain packaging laws around cigarettes that we put in place when we were last in government were about to expire. What we found was the industry had adopted a whole range of new marketing tactics to make cigarettes attractive, particularly young people to get around the intent of the plain packaging reforms that we put in place a decade ago.  

SIEBERT: But on the question of whether people will actually go from vapes back to smoking, is that something that you commissioned advice on before you announced the import ban and also the ban on sales?   

BUTLER: The reason I talked about our smoking regulation is because the advice we received was very much you need to do both at the same time. So, if you are going to start to cut down the supply of vapes, then you also need to deal with the fact that the cigarette industry had made cigarettes more attractive over the last several years without any regulation of that, and we’ve been doing both. But certainly every public health expert, every tobacco control expert - the last thing they wanted to see was the regulation around vaping would lead, particularly a whole lot of young people, to move to cigarettes. So that has been utterly at the forefront of our mind.   

SIEBERT: Is there a set of modelling? Is there a number? Is there a proportion of people that you expect to return to cigarettes as a result of these policies?   

BUTLER: None of the experts have been able to put a number on it. We’re determined to make sure that doesn't happen and put as many supports in place for people who do have nicotine addiction. Another very serious concern we've had right through this process is we don't just squeeze the balloon and see a lot of people go back to cigarettes, or in the case of young people go to cigarettes for the first time.   

SIEBERT: We know that vapes can be very dangerous for your health, but we also know that cigarettes are worse for your health on current evidence. Why crackdown on vapes in this way and ban their sale when you're not doing the same for cigarettes?  

BUTLER: A lot of the tobacco control experts I was talking to, and I posed that very question, Bension, and their response I think is a legitimate one, if somewhat fantastical. It is if we could go back in time 100 years, with the benefit of hindsight, consider regulating cigarettes as it was being introduced as a mass recreational product, I think governments would do something very different to what they did 100 years ago. And we're very concerned that this product is deliberately being targeted to young people. If you look at vaping prevalence in 30, 40, 50-year-olds and above it's very, very small and this is essentially a product being consumed by young people. It's causing them harm in and of itself.   

SIEBERT: Sure, but the question here is, you've got one product that's very, very dangerous for your health. You've got another product that's dangerous for your health. Why are we banning the sale aside from prescription of the less dangerous product and we're not banning the very, very dangerous product?   

BUTLER: Cigarettes are something that's been around for decades, very different addiction profile in the community. Vaping is still a relatively new product. We think we still have the chance to stamp it out as a recreational product. And we're taking that chance now. Since we've announced the measures, we've seen other countries who had originally been taken by the suggestion from industry that we should just regulate this product like we do cigarettes are coming round to the idea that no, actually, we need to take a much heavier hand with vapes.   

Now, for cigarettes other than that younger age cohort where I said smoking rates are going absolutely the wrong direction. We're still seeing smoking rates coming down in Australia more generally. The daily adult smoking rate we found from data released last week is down to about 8%. When I was born some time ago, three quarters of adult males smoked, so, we have one of the best records in the world on driving down daily smoking of tobacco and we've got a very clear plan to continue getting that right down to 5% by the end of the decade. We think we've got the right strategy for tobacco. But this new challenge of vaping needs to be stamped out before it gets very deep roots into the community, the sorts of deep roots that we've seen for many decades with cigarettes.   

SIEBERT: Mark Butler, thanks so much for joining us on The Briefing.   

BUTLER: Terrific to be with you, Bension. Thanks very much.  

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