Radio Interview with Minister Butler and Leon Compton - ABC Tasmania Statewide Mornings - 8 December 2023

Read Minister Butler's interview with Leon Compton on vaping; Urgent Care Clinics.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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LEON COMPTON, HOST: I wonder what you think about tough new laws around the importation of vapes that'll be coming into force from the 1st of January. Do you think they'll work? And what about the intersection between state and federal regulation to make sure those new, tougher laws actually stick on the ground? The figures around vaping and the frustrations you've told us about are growing and real. One in four teenagers has tried vaping and as many as one in five 18- to 25-year-olds might be fairly regular vapers in Australia. After all the work we've done around smoking and reducing smoking rates, how did we let the genie out of the bottle. And can these new regulations help get it back in there? Mark Butler is the Federal Health Minister. Minister, good morning to you.
 
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Good morning, Leon.
 
COMPTON: Describe the staged changes to my audience, please, that you'll be introducing from the 1st of January?
 
BUTLER: Stage one is kicking off on the 1st of January, as you say, and that will make the import of all disposable vapes illegal. So, what we're doing or trying to do at the first stage is to choke off supply of these vapes. These are the vapes that overwhelmingly kids and young adults are using. They're not therapeutic, they're not pharmaceutical, which is what we were told these things were all about - a therapeutic product to help hardened smokers who'd been smoking for decades kick the habit. These are recreational vapes being deliberately targeted at young people. I mean, your listeners, parents, grandparents might have seen them, they are so obviously marketed to kids. They might have pink unicorns on them. They're brightly coloured, they're bubble gum flavoured, they're cherry flavoured. So, what we're trying to do in the first stage is to stop those coming in from overseas, which they've been doing in vast quantities now for the last few years. The next stage is to set very clear conditions about the type of e-cigarette or vape that will still be able to be obtained in Australia. That will be non-disposable - it's got to be refillable, and it's got to be a pharmaceutical style product – so, no flavours, no fancy packaging, a prescribed nicotine content because laboratory testing shows that the vapes that our kids are currently using can have very, very high and dangerous levels of nicotine, which is why so many of them are ending up ringing poisons hotlines and or even ending up in hospital. That will make it clear that if you do continue to need this product for smoking cessation purposes, there will be products available. You'll have to get them on prescription through a pharmacist.
 
The third stage is I'll be introducing laws into the Federal Parliament when we come back next year, which will prohibit the supply and the domestic manufacture of vapes that don't comply with those very strict conditions. That will be a single set of federal laws which will be able to be effectively enforced at a state and territory level. When people like Guy Barnett or before him, your Premier who was still the Health Minister at the time, when we were first getting briefed about this, we were told we might have to pass laws through every single parliament in the country, which is obviously very laborious, takes a lot of time, very complicated. We then found that we could amend a particular piece of federal legislation which is mirrored in every state and territory. We've got a bit of a wrinkle in Western Australia, but that won't be of huge concern to your listeners, which we’ll work through. But certainly in Tasmania, Tasmanian health authorities already have the ability to enforce the legislation we’ll amend early next year, so that will effectively close the circle on this scheme of regulation of e-cigarettes to prohibit the supply other than through a pharmacy on prescription. These vape stores that have opened up down the road from our schools, convenience stores that are selling these things willy nilly, that will become illegal.
 
COMPTON: So, will Tasmania Police, operating under Tasmanian law, then have the power to go into those stores and if what they're holding is illegal they'll be committing a Tasmanian offence?
 
BUTLER: That's right. I don't expect that police will be doing that job. Guy Barnett and I and our health secretaries had a very productive meeting with police ministers and police commissioners a few weeks ago to talk about the enforcement of these new laws. Obviously, we're going to have to make sure there's strong enforcement at the border by the Australian Border Force and we've provided very significant additional resources for them to do that. But most of the policing of this sort of thing happens through health departments or consumer affairs authorities. That would continue to be the case. What we know, though, increasingly is that organised crime and outlaw motorcycle gangs are increasingly getting involved in the distribution of e-cigarettes and vapes. It's a very high revenue source for them and so we've seen with some sweeps and some sieges of product, particularly on the mainland, that that there has been involvement of these pretty nasty people. I think there's a recognition that although this enforcement will largely be the responsibility of state health authorities and state consumer affairs bodies, we will need to engage the police sometimes when there's intelligence that suggests that the organised crime gangs or outlaw motorcycle gangs are involved.  
 
COMPTON: Who has told you, Minister, that state health authorities have the resources they need to effectively police this in Tasmania?
 
BUTLER: We're having discussions with all of the states about the need to resource this. These laws will come into effect over really a period of months next year. The first piece of work is a piece of work for the Commonwealth because that will be a border control regulation and we have responsibility for that. We've provided $25 million in additional resourcing to the Border Force to do that. But this has been work undertaken over quite an extensive period now since I really first raised this very late in 2022. We've worked as a group of health ministers. We meet very regularly, as your listeners would expect, given the myriad of health issues we all have to grapple with at the moment coming out of COVID. I think all health ministers recognise that there will be an enforcement job here. The main thing we want to do is to send a very clear signal that that these retailers that have been able to get away with this because there have been so many loopholes in the laws governing e-cigarettes that the game is up.
 
 
COMPTON: So will those vape stores effectively close? Is that your expectation from the start of the year?
 
BUTLER: Yes because they will not be able to legally sell e-cigarettes. The only way in which e-cigarettes will legally be able or vapes will legally be able to be purchased will be on prescription through a pharmacy.
 
COMPTON: So, will it be an offence, Minister, for anybody to possess a banned vape?
 
BUTLER: No, we've been very clear about that since our first discussion as a group of health ministers. This is not about blaming users. as you suggested in your intro, and you're spot on about this. This is largely very young people, including kids. You talked about year 11 and 12 exams finishing, I noticed when you were talking about traffic. We're having stories right across Australia of year 11 and 12s having to do their exams with nicotine patches on. They are that addicted to nicotine. This has been a product cynically deliberately targeted at recruiting a new generation to nicotine addiction. I'm not going to blame those victims and no other health minister suggested that we would blame those victims or punish or penalise the users of vapes. We are after the importers and we are sending a very clear message to those who've been selling them through convenience stores or vape stores: the game is up; you're going to have to find a new way to make money
 
COMPTON: Mark Butler is our guest this morning the Federal Health Minister. We're talking about some tough new laws that will be imposed from the 1st of January, rolled out progressively through 2024 about the importation and sale of vapes, including in Tasmania. Minister, while we have you there, let's talk about hospital waiting times. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data out this week showed Tasmania's emergency wait times are the worst in the country and rising. For people that are just tuning in more than three quarters of people in Tasmania spend over four hours in ED before being seen or discharged. How does it feel to hear that these figures are worse and growing in this state?
 
BUTLER: This is something that that I've talked about really from the time I became Health Minister with your Premier and, since Guy Barnett was moved into the health portfolio, with Guy as well, and I know the Prime Minister has. If I can give you a sense of what's happening across the country. First of all, this data that the institute published last week shows a hospital system that is starting to come out of the COVID period. I mean, all of your listeners recognise the pressure that hospitals and the extraordinary people who work within them were under over the course of the COVID period. And what that meant is a lot of elective surgery didn't happen. What it also meant is that people were not getting the care they would ordinarily be getting from their doctors out in the community or from other health professionals. So it's meant we've had a big backlog. We've had a backlog in elective surgery. We've had a backlog in cancer screening. We've had a backlog in a whole range of other types of care that people weren't getting when they should have been, which means they're sicker than they otherwise would have been and are going to hospital more. So look, hospital systems right across the world are dealing with this COVID legacy. There are some good signs coming out of this, in the sense that elective surgery activity is starting to approach where it was before COVID. But there is still a backlog. There's no question about that. And there is still real pressure on our emergency departments. And we're working together, I think, really well on that. The first thing we're trying to do as a Commonwealth is to take pressure off emergency departments from those people who don't really need to be there. They need urgent care, but not for a life-threatening emergency, and they should be able to get that care out in the community, rather than trying to find an emergency department. This is our Medicare Urgent Care Clinics that we're opening right across the country. Four will be open in Tasmania from Monday. The Devonport clinic opens on Monday. Three of them already are in Hobart and Launceston. They're already having provided thousands of services to people who need care immediately, but not necessarily in a fully equipped hospital. And we're seeing some data across the country - I haven't got any Tasmanian hospital data - but we're seeing data across the country that hospitals in the area where those Urgent Care Clinics have opened up, are seeing their emergency department presentations drop off in those areas. So where your kid falls off the skateboard and breaks their arm or where you get a deep laceration that you can't wait seven days to get into a GP, that's where these clinics are having a real impact, delivering care where people need it when they need it and taking pressure off the hospital EDs.
 
COMPTON: Your mornings around Tasmania, Mark Butler is our guest this morning. And lots of texts coming in. PJ says “it's already illegal for a minor to access vapes, the existing vaping laws should have been enough, enforcements been the biggest problem” says PJ. “This morning Leon the small business CEO was against banning vapes. I wonder what he thinks now the genie is out of the bottle” says Di in Taroona, thank you, Di, for the text. And Adam asked via text this morning “Minister, is my doctor now going to prescribe unlimited nicotine vapes or will it be three months’ worth and then I'll be cut off and back on to tobacco? Will e-cigarettes be on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme?” asked Adam this morning. How will you manage, will you change in any way, Minister, back onto vaping the way that doctors prescribe nicotine vapes to get people off cigarettes?
 
BUTLER: There is no vape currently on the PBS. There have been other smoking cessation products on the PBS, but no company has applied to put a vape on the PBS, yet. I'm not sure whether that will happen in the future, but there's none right now. Up until now, only a few hundred doctors across the country are able to prescribe vapes. There was a scheme put in place under the former government that you would have to make a particular application, as a doctor, to be approved to prescribe these things. From the 1st of January, I'm going to get rid of that restriction, so every doctor and every nurse practitioner will have the legal ability to prescribe vapes. And that should make them much easier to access, if there's a genuine therapeutic need there. We're also continuing to look at whether there are other, you know, appropriate ways in which people are able to access this therapeutic product, if there's a genuine need for smoking cessation. So we do want to make sure that people who have genuine addiction needs, a genuine need to help get off the cigarettes, they're able to do that. So we're liberalising that, if you like, up from the 1st of January as well.
 
COMPTON: Mark, appreciate you talking with us this morning, as ever.
 
BUTLER: Thanks, Leon.
 
COMPTON: Mark Butler, Federal Health Minister.

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