LEON COMPTON, HOST: Mark Butler, the Federal Health Minister, good morning to you.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Good morning, Leon.
COMPTON: We've heard stories of schools taking doors off toilets. Another private school in the north of the state installed vape detectors and CCTV cameras that were activated. Minister, I'll just give you a little taste of some of the talk back we've had around this issue in Tasmania over the last month. Have a listen please.
CALLER: A lot of them do have nicotine in them, they lie on the labelling.
CALLER: My 17-year-old and his friends of have been here and they’re vaping.
CALLER: There’s another risk there of transmitted things like meningococcal and colds, flus, COVID.
CALLER: It's the beginning of a new horror story, really, and it's what we saw with cigarettes, way back.
CALLER: It’s probably the most debated subject in the poison schedule over the last 10 years in this country.
COMPTON: Minister, we spent decades fighting smoking and we're doing it effectively, it came an enormous financial cost, ground-breaking packaging reform, regulation, and it was working. How did we let the vaping genie out of the bottle?
BUTLER: You're right, it is a genie out of the bottle and it's exploded over the last several years, particularly during the COVID years. It's really, I think, got away from health authorities, governments, school communities and parents. None of those comments from your callers are news to me, unfortunately. A parent told us only over the last week they discovered in their very young child’s pencil case a vape that was disguised as a highlighter pen. I mean, what sort of people are making vapes disguised as a highlighter pen? Vapes that have pink unicorns on them, that are bubble gum flavoured. Yes, we had a challenge of stamping out cigarettes for children over the last several decades - you know, when I was at school, everyone was smoking and it took a lot of effort to stamp that out, and we did it very successfully. But there was not the cynical level of marketing even of cigarettes that we see in these vapes.
COMPTON: I just wanted to ask you then about one of the things we're hearing that you will have evidence on and you might have heard a touch of it a moment ago: your watermelon fizz or your spearmint, your fairy floss, containing as much nicotine as maybe a dozen packets of cigarettes in a product being marketed to children. Do you have evidence that that's happening?
BUTLER: We do, lots of evidence, unfortunately. We do have the idea of a prescription only model so that you can get nicotine votes only by prescription, but the truth is over the last several years a black market has just exploded. We have evidence through the TGA - the Therapeutic Goods Administration that the vapes that they seize are overwhelmingly containing nicotine, even though they pretend not to. The Australian newspaper only a couple of days ago they sent out one of their very young journalists who asked for nicotine vapes at various stores and got them quite shamelessly even though that's illegal.
This thing has got away from us and to his credit, my predecessor Greg Hunt, tried to put in place an import control, to stop them coming in over the borders, but within a couple of weeks, he was rolled by his own party room, frankly because there are a whole lot of pro vaping members of his caucus. So there haven't been the controls at the border, there hasn't been the sort of regulation put in place to get this thing under control and that is what I'm determined to change. School communities tell us now that this is the number one behavioural issue - not just at high schools, but at primary schools, this is now the number one behavioural issue and one of the things we have to combat is this idea that these are harmless, these are benign. Ingesting all of those chemicals into your lungs is profoundly unhealthy, but also as Emily - I didn’t hear all of Emily's interview - but I know she published research only over the last several days that shows that vapers are three times more likely to take up cigarettes, which perhaps explains why so much of this vaping industry and all of the rubbish they put about in newspapers about them being harmless is essentially driven by the tobacco industry.
COMPTON: So, here’s a model: you make it totally illegal, and you say: if a doctor prescribes you a nicotine vape, you can have one, for everyone else it's banned - illegal to sell, illegal to use. It could be as simple as that. Will it be?
BUTLER: I've said that nothing is off the table as far as I'm concerned. Well, the only thing off the table is the sort of silly policy the National Party has endorsed this week which is to normalise vapes and make them freely available, really, across the country. That's off the table as far as I'm concerned, but in terms of clamping down on this public health menace, particularly a menace to our kids, nothing's off the table. You know, I asked the Therapeutic Goods Administration to conduct a consultation over summer, there were thousands of submissions to them and tomorrow they will publish on their website a summary of that consultation, which will have a whole range of options for governments then to consider.
COMPTON: Sure, but Minister, I just gave you a really simple model that would make it completely illegal to import or sell these products, to use them, unless it has been prescribed by a doctor, you get your recharges at the pharmacy. It’s a simple model that would seem to deal with a lot of these issues. Is it the model that you prefer at this stage?
BUTLER: We’ve got a process to work with all of the other state and territory governments. I know the Tasmanian Government is keen to take strong action here. We haven't decided what the final model is, we're going to do that informed by the consultation that will be published tomorrow. We only met as a group of Health Ministers over the last couple of weeks and all of those options, we confirmed, all of those options, including something like you've just described, remain on the table. But we've got to work through that. We are determined to do that quickly because this thing is just getting worse and worse every single year. I guess what I can say to your listeners is that on coming in to government over the last several months, I was frankly shocked at the scale of this menace and we are determined to take strong action - whether it ends up being exactly the model that you've described, Leon, we have to go through a process to work through. But this idea that the National Party has that: oh well, the genie's out of the bottle, let's just freely make these available across convenience stores and, you know, supermarkets and petrol stations, that would just be an awful thing for us to do and it is certainly not something I'm considering.
COMPTON: Dr Kathryn Barnsley is a local expert on this subject, she talks about the need for state and federal government to act in concert, what role will the states play when it comes to any policy around this?
BUTLER: She’s absolutely right and state governments recognise this as well. I mean, to do this properly we've got to work across portfolios at a Commonwealth level. It's not just a health issue, but we've got to consider what we can do at the border, which Greg Hunt to his credit tried to do, but couldn’t get through his Government. But we know that these aren't coming through in big shipping containers that are easy to detect, they’re coming through in small parcels that are harder to detect. Even if we put in place sort of controls at the border, we are going to need on the ground policing, which really is only able to be delivered by state governments. But obviously they want to see us taking action. It’s no good for them sort to put resources into this if there's sort of a very porous border. We recognise that all of us have to act together - not just health portfolios but policing portfolios, Border Force portfolios. I think there's a really high degree of willingness among all state governments, doesn't matter whether you're Liberal or Labor, all state governments have said to me at our Health Minister meetings: we are determined to put some effort behind this. But they want to see the Commonwealth do that as well, and frankly, over the last few years they didn’t see that.
COMPTON: On Mornings around Tasmania, Mark Butler, the Federal Health Minister is our guest on an issue we've been talking a lot with you about over the past month on Mornings around Tasmania. 'G’day Leon, your listeners may not be aware that the biggest vaping entity is Juul, and Juul got bought out by Big Tobacco, I reckon you can join the dots,’ says Joe this morning via text. Minister, what is the connection between Big Tobacco and vaping in Australia?
BUTLER: The dots sit right next to each other, they're pretty easy to join and a lot of media organisations, you know, as diverse as The Guardian newspaper, The Australian newspaper over the last several days have been publishing the very clear connections between the lobby groups, which are pushing for the sort of policy that the National Party endorsed this week, and Big Tobacco. And as Emily Banks’ research shows, it's pretty clear why, because they know that after all of the effort we've put in to drive down cigarette use, which has been very successful here in Australia - I was part of the health portfolio in the last Labor Government that introduced those world-leading reforms, we're very proud of them. But the tobacco industry has done a whole lot of work to get around them. They've made cigarettes more attractive by putting these menthol bombs in, and different marketing, but they also recognise that vaping is a gateway to cigarettes, and Emily’s research shows that as well.
COMPTON: Minister, I know you've got to be off the phone in a moment or two’s time. I just want to ask you about ramping at our hospitals here in Tasmania. If you look inside our hospitals and the amount of ramping going on trying to get through emergency, so many of those people are people that might otherwise have gone to a GP if they could afford it, and if they could get an appointment. What are you doing to help that situation which works for nobody here except maybe the Federal Government in trying to save money on primary care?
BUTLER: I'm deeply concerned about the state of primary care, which is probably in its worst condition in the 40-year history of Medicare. It’s why we put rebuilding general practice at the centre of our health policy at the last election, and we've had really good cooperation with the Tasmanian State Government. Already we've introduced a new model, outside of the big cities in Tasmania to revive rural general practice: a single employer model that means that general practice registrars - the trainee GPs will be employed by the State Government but still able to bill Medicare. I mean, that might sound pretty straightforward, but there has been a long-standing legal block to some really sensible arrangements, and Jeremy Rockliff pushed us to do that across the state, the Prime Minister and I came down to Tasmania several weeks ago to announce that. We've got our Urgent Care Clinics proposal where the Expressions of Interest for which have closed in Tasmania, the first state to get them up and running. So, we'll be in a position to announce them in due course. But I'm not going to pretend this is going to be easy to turn around after a decade of cuts to Medicare. We’ll have more to say in our Budget about this, we've got additional investment that we set aside of the election campaign for general practice, and we will be announcing in our Budget in May how we propose to spend this, but I'm really conscious that general practice is in a dire straight across the whole of the country, and it's placing more pressure on our hospital system.
COMPTON: Appreciate you talking with us this morning, thanks for being part of Mornings right around Tasmania, Minister.
BUTLER: Thanks, Leon.