Radio interview with Minister Butler and David Bevan, ABC Adelaide Mornings - 18 April 2024

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's radio interview with David Bevan on UK smoking legislation; vaping.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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HOST DAVID BEVAN, ABC RADIO ADELAIDE: But Mark Butler has joined us. He's the Federal Health Minister. In a moment, we'll go to Ian and we'll go to Glenn. But Mark Butler, thank you for giving us some of your time.
BEVAN: Are you watching the UK debate?
BUTLER: I have been to the extent I have time. I've been reading a few stories over the last little while and a couple of weeks ago when there was a proposal being debated in the parliament to ban disposable vapes as well, I was particularly interested in given that our parliament is currently debating vaping legislation. But overnight, the passage of legislation obviously got a bit of coverage, including on the ABC. So I've been watching that closely.
BEVAN: Do you think it's got merit?
BUTLER: When we came to Government a couple of years ago, we inherited a position where there hadn't really been much change to smoking regulations. That was a bit the case around the world and you were starting to see an increased level of activity by other governments. Canada had led it. The New Zealand Government was leading as well, although there's been a bit of a roll back to those changes and there was a live debate in the UK. So we conducted - or I conducted - a pretty broad consultation process with health groups, doctors’ groups, the usual tobacco control people. And we looked at a range of things that we could do to start to make cigarettes even less attractive, because what we'd found is in the intervening decade since our last Labor government under Nicola Roxon introduced plain packaging the tobacco industry had found a range of different ways to make cigarettes attractive, particularly to young people. They'd made the individual sticks were attractive, they were different shapes, they were brightly coloured. They were putting little menthol bombs in the cigarettes so as you sort of suck down on the cigarette, you get an explosion of mint in your mouth. And they were starting to be designed in a way, particularly to look attractive on Instagram and other social media. We followed a lot of the lead that Canada had put in place and passed new laws late last year, which are really quite a new generation of tobacco control. They only passed the week before Christmas. So individual cigarette sticks will have dissuasive warnings on them. I noticed that Rishi Sunak was advised to do that. The British Prime Minister, he decided not to do it. Canada had been the first country in the world to do that. We've followed that lead. So we've done a bunch of things that the UK hasn't done. But in those consultations, to get to your question, in those consultations, no one really recommended to me that we do this age-based changes so it wasn't included in our laws last year. New Zealand was the first government to do it. But after the change of government in the election last year, they've rolled that back. And now the UK is really the first government in the world as far as I'm aware at least to do this. We'll obviously follow it closely and look at how it goes. But I think what's most important is that there is this renewed activity in countries we usually compare ourselves like Canada, UK, New Zealand Australia trying to push back on tobacco's sort of newer efforts to make their cigarettes more attractive.
BEVAN: I suppose, what I'm trying to find out, Mark Butler - I mean, obviously you'd like to restrict - you'd be happy if no one was puffing on a cigarette. That would be - you'd be very happy with that. Yes?
BUTLER: Sure. Because we know how dangerous it is, it’s still the biggest cause of preventable death in Australia even though we've got our smoking rates down really significantly.
BEVAN: Right. So, what I'm trying to get out from you is do you think this has got any legs at all or do you think- I mean, one listener, John, says this has two chances of getting through: Buckley's and none. Well, apparently it is going to get through the UK Parliament. The Labour ...
BUTLER: Well, it’s through.
BEVAN: Well, it's through the House of Commons, but it's got to go through the House of Lords yet.
BUTLER: Yes, I suppose.
BEVAN: But the report says- you know, they do have a House of Lords up there. So apparently, it's odds on to get through the House of Lords and become law. But I just want to know, do you look at this and think, my lord, if they can get away with this, I'd give it a go.
BUTLER: As I've said, we did a very big package of reforms last year. We went further in some areas than Rishi Sunak is going. I'm not minded to do this quite yet. My focus right now particularly when I think about what's impacting young Australians, is the vaping reforms that we want to get through, and they are some of the toughest regulations on vaping or e-cigarettes anywhere in the world, and I haven't got them through the Parliament yet. They're still being debated in the House of Reps. I'm still a little unclear what the opposition's view is going to be about that. I know the National Party will oppose it very strongly. I'm still a bit unclear about what Peter Dutton and Anne Ruston's views are.
So, that is my focus right now because I think that's the biggest threat right now to young Australians. The rates of vaping are frightening and they're impacting school behaviours and a whole range of other things.
BEVAN: Some of our listeners are saying, look, the Government doesn't want to ban cigarette smoking because you're hooked on the revenue. Now, appreciate you want to get ahead of the game as much as you can now with vaping. And that becomes a problem, doesn't it? Because if you don't get ahead of the game, governments get hooked on the revenue, and that's what people are suggesting is happening here. The reason the Federal Government wouldn't contemplate a ban on cigarettes for people of a certain age, you know, they're going to phase it in, is because you're hooked on the dough.
BUTLER: Well, that's not right. That's not a reason. And as I said, that was not a recommendation to me in the sort of pretty extensive consultation I undertook, and every other significant recommendation I got about a new generation of tobacco control laws were contained in the bill that passed the Parliament late last year. We've got a tobacco strategy as a group of governments, not just the Federal Government, but all the state governments as well, which has clear targets to continue to drive down that rate of smoking. It's about 10 per cent of adults now. When you and I were born, David, it was probably three-quarters of adult males. It's now down to about 10 per cent. We want to get it down to 5 per cent by the end of the decade and continue driving it down.
The concern I've got about vapes and the reason why I raised that is that what we know already- and this is a relatively new phenomenon that particularly exploded during the pandemic. We already know that young vapers are three times as likely to take up cigarettes, and that, after all, was the objective of Big Tobacco in producing this product in the first place. And the only cohort in the community, the only age group in the community where smoking rates are actually going up are the youngest, 18 to 24-year-olds because vaping is this new gateway. So that's my major focus right now.
BEVAN: Well, before you leave us, Roz has called from Moonta Bay. In a moment, we'll go to Ian and Glenn, but at 9.20. Hello, Roz.
CALLER ROZ: Yeah. Good morning.
BEVAN: What are you thinking, Roz?
CALLER ROSS: Well, I was just saying- I just thought who’s going to pick up the slack for all the excise that they're not going to collect on tobacco, but while I’ve been sitting here waiting to go on air, I was also thinking they want to also introduce more electric vehicles, which means the excise on fuel cars, the fuel excise, will also be cut. So, where does all this money coming from that you're going to lose?
BEVAN: You make a very good point, Roz, because these decisions would have budgetary impacts, wouldn't they? If you've just joined us, what we're talking about is the UK government looks likely to introduce a ban on cigarettes for people born after January 1, 2009, and Mark Butler, the Federal Health Minister here in Australia, from South Australia, we're asking him would he be interested. And Mark Butler, I think the fair and accurate report of your comment is we're doing a lot, no plans to do any more, but I'll keep an eye on it.
BUTLER: That's right. And I'm sure the UK- we talk a lot between jurisdictions, particularly likeminded countries like the UK, Canada, New Zealand and ourselves, and I talk to their health minister. We will be watching what impact their new laws have as they will be watching ours and Canada's. We’ve taken slightly different - in areas, ours are stronger. But this new change, which really sort of came out of nowhere really in the UK. The view had been up until the last couple of months that the UK was not going to take strong action on smoking or on vapes. And to his credit, Prime Minister Sunak has clearly taken a really strong position on both, and I think that's a good thing.
BEVAN: It's just not a position that you would follow.
BUTLER: We've put in place a really tough set of regulations in December. No one- as I said, come back to the point, no one recommended this. The recommendation from tobacco control groups in terms of young people was go hard on vapes. I mean, that is their major area of concern. It's the number one behavioural issue that school principals are reporting to us. It's dangerous in and of itself, ingesting all of these chemicals into your lungs, but we also know it is a gateway to cigarettes. So we'll watch the UK but we're pretty confident we're taking strong action here as well.
BEVAN: Mark Butler, thank you very much. We'll have to get you back in the studio. It's been a while.
BUTLER: That would be lovely, thanks.

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