Radio interview with Minister Butler and Dave Marchese, Triple J Hack - 28 November 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Dave Marchese about the next steps on vaping reforms.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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DAVE MARCHESE, HOST: We've got the Health Minister, Mark Butler with us now to answer some of those questions. G'day, Minister. Thank you so much for coming on Hack.


MARCHESE: It's been illegal for Australians to buy or import nicotine vapes for a couple of years now, but I think it's fair to say they're more available than ever before. What makes you think that this ban on all disposable single use vapes is going to work?

BUTLER: You're right. They're very readily available and they've become a really serious public health issue, particularly for young Australians. When I say young Australians, I'm talking about kids in primary schools as much as high schools and high school graduates. The problem we've got is that there's this massive loophole around the current laws. To his credit, the former health minister, Greg Hunt, wanted to do something serious about this area, but he was rolled by his own party room, who frankly, I think was lobbied by the tobacco industry. And so they left this big loophole that allows people or companies to import vapes pretending that they don't have nicotine in them. So when I did a thing with Border Force down in Sydney, they'd seized 35 tonnes of vapes that had been imported into the country, almost all of which either had no label on them or were actually labelled non-nicotine or no nicotine. But when we take them off to a lab and test them, overwhelmingly, well more than 90% of them have often very dangerous levels of nicotine in them.

MARCHESE: So, what you're saying is you're closing the border to all vapes?


MARCHESE: I mean, the border is closed to a lot of things, really, when you think about it. Illicit drugs, for instance, they're still readily available, being widely used in Australia. Isn't this just going to maybe promote organised crime getting involved, create a bigger black market than there already is?

BUTLER: Organised crime is already involved. I had a meeting with all of the police commissioners last week along with police minister colleagues. We had a briefing from them about the fact that outlaw motorcycle gangs, other organised crime gangs are already very heavily involved in the vape market. It's a big source of revenue for them. But equally, as you say, Dave, you know, I didn't come down in yesterday's shower. I know when you prohibit the imports of things like this, some of the product will get through. We've seen that with import prohibitions on illicit drugs over very many years.

The challenge we've got, though, is currently they are so readily available, particularly to kids. This was a product we have to remember. It was a product that was sold as an idea to communities right around the world, including here in Australia as a therapeutic good that is like a medicine type product that would help hardened smokers kick the habit. So, smokers who have been smoking for decades, middle aged and older, who couldn't kick the habit with the use of Nicorette patches and other smoking cessation products like that, would get some benefit from this new modern therapeutic product. But a few years down the track, what we've actually learned is that's not the game at all. What the tobacco industry has done here is tried to find a product that will recruit a whole new generation of nicotine addicts.

MARCHESE: I'm just wondering, though, Minister, how do you police this, though? Because I could walk into a store and buy a nicotine vape right now, even though it's against the law?

BUTLER: That's right. And that's largely because of this massive loophole, which means they've flooded in from overseas. And it's very, very difficult for health authorities and other authorities - including Border Force at the border - to police because there's this loophole that means when they seize a vape, they have to send it off to a lab and get the vape tested to see whether it's legal or illegal. What I'm doing with the regulation that will be put in place on the 1st of January is to do away with this ridiculous distinction between nicotine and non-nicotine vapes. It's actually not a real-world distinction at all. It's simply a cover for these gangs to import vast amounts of nicotine vapes, pretending they have no nicotine in them and then selling them at vape stores, at convenience stores, at tobacconists and all the rest.

MARCHESE: Just to be clear, what happens if you're in possession of a vape, if you're a young person listening now, is there a penalty if you're caught with a vape?

BUTLER: No, absolutely not. We've been very clear. This is not about imposing penalties on users. This is about cracking down on those who import the product and then sell the product.

MARCHESE: And what are the penalties going to be for those who sell them? Like, do we have any? Is it going to mean jail time for these people?

BUTLER: We will publish that regulation very shortly and that will set out the penalties. I can say there's a significant increase in the penalties against the existing regulations because we know we've got to work hard to disincentivise this. This is at the moment a pretty low risk, high reward market for not just for the gangs that really drive the market, the tobacco industry that's largely behind it, because they've got a strategy of recruiting a new generation to nicotine addiction, knowing that they'll then move into cigarettes. And we are already seeing that among young Australians. We want to send a very clear message to those stores who are selling vapes now that this loophole is going to be closed. We're not going to put up with it anymore. Now, Dave, I'm really sorry. I'm in the Parliament and they've just called a division that I've got to rush off for.

MARCHESE: I can hear the bells, I can hear the bells.

BUTLER: They do this without giving us any notice. I apologise so much to your listeners. I was looking forward to being able to have more of a conversation, but I've got to rush off and exercise my democratic obligations.

MARCHESE: Look, Minister, we will definitely be having you on again to talk about this. Thank you very much for joining us today. We've got a few more questions. We'll make sure we get back to you with those. Thanks for coming on Hack.

BUTLER: Terrific. Thanks, Dave.    

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