Radio interview with Minister Butler and James Valentine, ABC Radio Sydney - 14 November 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with James Valentine on vaping.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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JAMES VALENTINE, HOST: Last week, the Australian Border Force announced that they'd intercepted some 35 tonnes of vaping products that were all suspected to contain nicotine or largely suspected to contain nicotine. Sarah Macdonald spoke to Australian Border Force Superintendent Graeme Campbell, who heads up the team combating vape imports into Australia, and he talked about what they found.
GRAEME CAMPBELL, AUSTRALIAN BORDER FORCE SUPERINTENDENT: Throughout the first two weeks of October, we detected around 35 tonnes of vaping products. Now they have been tested by the TGA and over 92% of those vapes have been found to contain nicotine.
VALENTINE: We've been talking about this a lot on breakfast because it drives so many of us crazy. There's vape shops opening up every second day, they come, they go, there'll be two or three in a strip of shops. They'll be near schools; the kids are all doing it. And the thing that I think is driving us nuts is that it all contains nicotine, whether it says it does or it doesn't, these are illegally labelled, falsely labelled, it will have nicotine in it, the addictive properties are horrendous, and the health outcomes are just not going to be good.
Mark Butler, the Federal Health Minister, joins us this morning. Mark Butler, good morning.


VALENTINE: It's such a thorny issue trying to deal with this. It crosses all, you know, local, state and federal governments - which is the bit that you think that you really want to untangle here?

BUTLER: What we've decided to do as a group of governments, and I met with all of my health minister colleagues again on Friday in Perth to talk about this among all of the other challenges we have in the health system, what we've decided to do is to just come over the top of all of these false distinctions that the industry has sought to create.
First of all, let's go back to first principles, the industry right around the world sold this product, e-cigarettes or vapes, as a benevolent therapeutic good that would help harden smokers kick the habit. If they'd tried patches, they'd tried Nicorette gum, all the rest and they were unable to kick the habit that this was yet one more sort of tool in the toolbox, if you like, for smoking cessation. Governments copped that, and they allowed these things to be introduced as a therapeutic good. But actually, what we've found and this haul that the Border Force did last week in Sydney - I was down there with the Border Force Commissioner - demonstrated so clearly is that these are not packaged and sold for middle aged, hardened smokers of my age. These have pink unicorns on them, they're bubble gum flavoured, they're pink, they're made to look like highlighter pens and USB sticks so kids can hide them in their pencil cases. These are so obviously and deliberately targeted at young people to recruit a new generation to nicotine addiction, it's not funny. It seriously is not funny, this is the number one behavioural issue in school communities around the country, indeed around the world. As you say, it's just driving people crazy. It's driving parents crazy.

VALENTINE: Yeah so, when you say “come in over the top” what are you talking about?

BUTLER: There was an attempt by the last government and Greg Hunt, to his credit, saw that this was going to be a problem, he just wasn't given the latitude by his party room to do the big fix. The government essentially drew a distinction between nicotine vapes, which they said were bad, and non-nicotine vapes, which they said would be able to be imported into the country at will. As your intro said, what that's meant is that nicotine vapes are coming in not labelled as nicotine vapes, deliberately, often labelled as non-nicotine, and every time there's a haul - the New South Wales Police did it recently, the TGA and the Border Force did it last week - every time there's a haul and they’re sent off to a lab, which is what the police have to do because they don't know whether they're legal or illegal, they come up as well more than 90 per cent nicotine. What we've decided to do is we're just going to outlaw them all.

VALENTINE: So Federal Government is just going to ban vapes, so wholesale, that's it?

BUTLER: That’s right. We've got some of the toughest laws ready to be introduced in the world. Increasingly, we're starting to see countries, because this has got a lot of publicity around the world, we're starting to see other countries follow our lead. France is doing that, the UK is looking at its original proposals, which were pretty liberal – small l liberal, pretty accommodating of vapes - Prime Minister Sunak's taking a different view about that.

VALENTINE: So those shops that pop up everywhere, that'll be illegal. You simply won't be able to put up a convenience store, tobacco store, vape store and sell them?

BUTLER: That's right. The only way you will be able to legally get a vape in this country is through a pharmacy on a prescription from a doctor or a nurse practitioner. Those vapes will have to be sort of pharmaceutical style packaging. So, none of this pink unicorns, they won't be able to have flavours, they'll be prescribed levels of nicotine, very clear regulations by the Therapeutic Goods Administration about what chemicals they get in them. The idea that you'll be able to get these vapes willy nilly at convenience stores or stores that are wholly set up to sell vapes that will go.
VALENTINE: And when is this coming in?
BUTLER: We’ve got to do this in a series of different regulations. Our initial advice was that we might have to pass laws through every single parliament in the country – the federal parliament and all the state and territory parliaments - which would have been very difficult for us to do, frankly. So, we’ve gone beyond that and we've now got a scheme that will allow a single law to be put through the Commonwealth Parliament and all of the state policing and health authorities will be able to enforce that. The first thing we're going to do, and I talked about this with the Border Force last week, is remove this loophole that really ties one hand behind their back, where they have to seize vapes and then send them off to labs to determine whether they're legal or illegal. We're going to put in place an import regulation in by the end of this year, probably next month, that bans the import of all disposable vapes and all other vapes that don't comply with those standards I've just talked about.

VALENTINE: You've got all parties on board with this? This will pass?

BUTLER: The regulation I can just make, the Opposition could try to disallow it if they wanted. The National Party has taken a different view to me and to my Health Minister colleagues. The National Party wants to see them sort of regulated and effectively become a part of the Australian way of life. Peter Dutton has been pretty quiet on this, he said he recognises that this is an issue in school communities and I hope he comes on board, but if he doesn't, we'll just have to work with the crossbench because after the import control regulation comes in, we'll then have to pass further legislation next year to allow the state authorities to police, effectively, the supply on the ground, so what parents are constantly tearing their hair about, the fact that these stores are opening up down the road from schools deliberately because they recognise that school kids are their market.
VALENTINE: Yeah, and the criticism may be, well, this will just force a black market and that will probably be true, but it doesn't mean that it's down the road and it doesn't mean that it's, you know, there's a pink unicorn bubble gum flavoured one available, you know, so easily. Mark Butler, thanks for that. I think we should pick this up at another point and get some further detail on this and follow this through. Thanks so much for some time.
BUTLER: My pleasure, mate.

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