Radio interview with Minister Butler and Craig Reucassel, ABC Radio Sydney Breakfast - 29 February 2024

Read the interview with Minister Butler and Craig Reucassel on the new influencer-led vaping campaign; next steps of vaping reform; snus; private health insurance.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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CRAIG REUCASSEL, HOST: Talking of politics, could Ellyse Perry convince you to stop vaping? She's one of a dozen social media influencers with 11 million followers between them that have been recruited by the federal government as part of a $250,000 campaign to combat pro vaping messages online. Unfortunately for Federal Health Minister Mark Butler, a photo has surfaced of one the influencers, comedian Jaxon Fairbairn, holding a vape last year. Mark Butler is the Federal Health Minister and he joins me this morning from Canberra. Thanks for talking to us, Mark.
REUCASSEL: So, uh, look, not the greatest start with this guy being seen with a vape, but do you think that, is a social media campaign going to have any influence when we're battling nicotine addiction? 
BUTLER: What we know is that young people aren't using the media that you and I grew up with, Craig. They're just not. They're getting their messages increasingly from TikTok and Instagram and YouTube. And that's where we have to go if we want to give young people good information about the health risks associated with vaping. We know that these social media channels are absolutely overwhelmed with messages being promoted by Big Tobacco. I'm told that there are 18 billion posts on TikTok promoting vaping. There are 18,000 influencers on Instagram pumping out pro vaping messages. And actually, when we went to the market to find out influencers who might be willing to partner with the Commonwealth to put out good information and healthy messages to young people, we heard from them that the industry was out there trying to pay them to put out pro vaping messages.
So, we've got to get out, we've got to fight back, we can't leave that field - that media field - where young people, teenagers - which is the target audience, 14 to 20 year olds - are getting their messages. We can't leave that vacant. So this is new: this is a new approach for the Commonwealth Government to partner directly with young influencers to get that information out to young people. But I cannot see an alternative, for the life of me, if we're determined to fight this public health menace that is doing such damage to young Australians.
REUCASSEL: Oh, absolutely doing huge damage, and that's extraordinary when you talk about how many kind of pro vape messages there are on things like TikTok. We have laws in Australia that ban cigarette advertising right now. Is there any capacity for you and the government to ban pro vape messages on things like TikTok, or is that just out of your power? You can't do it? 
BUTLER: We actually updated all of those long-standing tobacco laws around advertising of cigarettes late last year. I think they passed in the last week of the Parliament before Christmas. And that did a range of things, it updated our tobacco control legislation, which hadn't really been changed for ten years. So, in the meantime, the cigarette industry had found new ways to market cigarettes as attractive, particularly to young people, so we wanted to stamp that out. But we also updated the advertising laws so that they would cover vaping and it would cover new social media channels as much as we possibly can. Now that only just passed. 
REUCASSEL: Yes, Minister, that's obviously not working because you've just said there are 18 billion vape messages on TikTok.
BUTLER: That's right. They've only just passed and it's obviously a very, very different prospect dealing with messages that are overwhelmingly on TikTok compared to, for example, an ad that might be on Channel 9 or a commercial radio station. So, they've only just passed and obviously we're going to have to grapple with the enforcement of that. But in the meantime, we need positive messages going out there as well. And that's what this partnership is, with some really terrific young social media influencers.
I heard in your introduction that you pointed out that one of them had a photo of a vape or taking a vape sometime early last year, and that was somehow a problem. I just think have a look at the maths, the number of young people vaping out in the community now, it would be surprising if selecting twelve young influencers, a couple of them hadn't vaped in the past. And you know, I see that as no barrier to them now getting out and promoting positive messages. They understand what is happening among young Australian communities. They will have experienced themselves. I see that as no barrier to them participating in this campaign. Now, if they were current vapers, that would be a different question.
REUCASSEL: No, I understand that.
BUTLER: I think this has been really quite a weird piece of analysis by some in the media. 
REUCASSEL: We’ll just move on from the social media campaign to the actual overall vape crackdown and how it's going. Every day we get a lot of texts from listeners talking about another vape and candy shop has been opened. This morning we've heard that somebody said: “there's four new vape shops in the main street of Cronulla.” We've got others saying that one's opened the main street of Springwood here. Many of these vape shops are kind of getting the kids in by selling this kind of lollies as well with it. Are they against the current laws or are the laws regards to vape shops not really come into play yet? Where are we in terms of this crackdown?
BUTLER: Look, I understand the frustration, particularly of parents and communities. I mean, they're telling us they don't understand how this was allowed to happen. This has exploded over the last few years. Some data coming out this year has shown that young people vaping has increased by 400% over the last few years. It sort of came out of nowhere for many parents and school communities, and they're right to be concerned about the fact that these vape stores are opening up around the corner from their schools. We know that 9 in 10 vape stores in Australia are within walking distance of schools, and that's no accident. It's because that is their target market. 
REUCASSEL: So when will they be banned? 
BUTLER: I will be introducing legislation into the Federal Parliament in the next few weeks, when we come back after a break. So in the coming four weeks, I'll be introducing legislation to Parliament that will ban the sale and the supply of vapes. And that will essentially make these vape stores unlawful, and that will be legislation that is able to be enforced through state and territory authorities. When we were first looking at this - and Ryan Park, the New South Wales Health Minister, has been a terrific partner on this - when we were first looking this at this as a group of health ministers, we feared we might have to pass legislation through every single parliament in Australia, which would have taken a very long time. Obviously, we now know that we can just pass one law through the Federal Parliament and have it enforced. I understand the frustrations people, particularly parents and school communities, who now see this as the number one behavioural issue in their schools. They're incredibly frustrated and angry when these stores open up around the corner from their schools.
REUCASSEL: Absolutely. We're speaking to the Federal Health Minister, Mark Butler. Now, one of the questions I have for you, Minister, is that, you know, these are some very forward-looking laws in terms of banning vaping here. We've got an enormous amount of young people that are now currently addicted to nicotine. We're going to take out all this nicotine. We're going to make it harder for them to get it. You know, I don't think people are just going to suddenly go cold turkey. Yesterday we had a lot of parents calling in about kids who were using snus, which is a kind of synthetic nicotine that's put in a pouch in the mouth. They're just ordering it from online. You know, a lot of people are still ordering vapes from online. What is actually the plan from the government in terms of overcoming young people that have nicotine addiction? And the obvious thing is that they're just going to go and get on to cigarettes, isn't it? 
BUTLER: That obviously is probably our number one concern. So we've been very, very careful to try and make sure that we are putting in place strong tobacco control or cigarette control measures at the same time we're doing this because the worst result here would be if people moved from vaping to cigarettes. So we're putting in place measures to counter that. There's very substantial funds we put in the Budget last year to boost all of the Quitline supports and to have them targeted at young people and not just cigarettes but vaping as well. And Jason Clare, the Education Minister, and I, and our state equivalents have been writing to school principals to make sure that school communities are aware of those new resources.
But you are right to point out a concern. We know that cocaine's been illegal for forever, but it still comes in. I've tried to be honest with people and, pretty frank, that this is going to be hard. This thing has exploded over the last few years. We've given a lot of extra resources to Border Force and to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, they've in the last few weeks since the new import ban took effect seized about 360,000 illegal vapes in just the last several weeks. That's about three times as many as were seized in the whole of last year. So, it is having an effect. But I'm not going to pretend that some won't get through. They don't come in shipping containers with the word ‘vape’ painted on the side of them. But we are giving our authorities every resource they have requested to do this job, and they're determined to do it.
REUCASSEL: Yes okay, thanks for giving us the update on that. Before you go, health premiums looked set to rise after April the 1st, we haven't yet found out how much by. Are we going to find out after the Dunkley by-election? Is that when we find out, Minister?
BUTLER: I think the private health insurance industry went out yesterday and said this is all a bit of a beat up. It is quite customary for this to happen towards the end of February and in the first couple of weeks of March. If you go back under the Howard Government, it was always the last week of February, the first two weeks of March. Under Rudd, under Gillard. Sussan Ley, the deputy Liberal leader when she was the health minister, published this in March. I'm going through this very carefully and my principal objective is to get the best deal possible for consumers.
REUCASSEL: So, you're still negotiating at the moment, are you?
BUTLER: I've gone back -
REUCASSEL: Do you know what the prices are now?
BUTLER: I've gone back to some of them a couple of times. I've asked for some further advice from my department about the latest response from some of those funds, which I went back to not once but twice, and I'm determined to get the best result for consumers. But the idea that this is somehow unusual is just a beat up. Other than Greg Hunt, who used to make these decisions a little earlier than others, if you go back the last 20 years what I'm doing matches what happened under the Howard, the Rudd, the Gillard, the Turnbull Governments.
REUCASSEL: Okay. Thanks so much for speaking to us.

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