Radio interview with Minister Butler and Michael McLaren, 2GB Afternoons - 21 March 2024

Read the transcript of the radio interview between Minister Butler and Michael McLaren on world leading vaping legislation being introduced to Parliament.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MICHAEL MCLAREN, HOST: They've become a scourge, haven't they? On modern society, it seems everywhere you look there's either someone using a vape or a brand new tobacconist, quote unquote, selling an array of vape flavours just down the street. Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that, yes, there's been a long-term downward trend in daily tobacco smoking since 1991. That's good. Number of smokers dropping by more than half, I think, through to 2019. But the big issue seems to be, and no surprise here, the use of vapes jumping significantly. Certainly between 2016 and 2019, the numbers suggesting 39% of people admitting to having used a vape in their life 39%. Well, the Federal Government says: “we'll have enough of that,” hoping to change it. Stricter vaping laws now being introduced into the Parliament, basically designed to ban the importation, supply and local manufacture of e-cigarettes and vapes unless, of course, they are prescribed by a doctor. Well, the man that has to try to make all of this work is the Federal Health Minister, Mark Butler, is on the line. Minister, thank you for your time.
MCLAREN: Just briefly, what’s the legislation today proposing?
BUTLER: As you said, it's to ban the sale, the supply and the manufacture of these vapes here in Australia. It's important to remember that when these things first came onto the market not too many years ago, they were presented to us here in Australia and the countries right around the world as a therapeutic product. That is a product that would help hardened smokers kick the habit. People had been smoking for decades and tried all of the other nicotine replacement therapies. It was never presented to us as a recreational product, particularly not one that would be targeted and marketed to our kids and our young people. But that's what it is. We can't deny that now. You just have to look at the products, they're brightly coloured, they've got the cartoon characters on them, they're bubble gum flavoured. And look at where they're sold in stores, nine out of ten which have deliberately been set up within walking distance of our schools. This has become very clearly a device by the tobacco industry to recruit a new generation to nicotine addiction. And the tragedy is it's working.
MCLAREN: It is. I mean, you go to any sort of school, you look in the lockers, every second locker room would be full of these things. So, the vapes are just ubiquitous now, and in a very short period of time
BUTLER: That's right. Vaping among young people, by which I mean schoolkids, has exploded by 400% over the last five years. It really took off during COVID as well. And school communities, the school leaders, the parents’ groups right across the country tell us this is now the number one behavioural issue they confront in their schools, and they want something done about it.
MCLAREN: Okay. Now that initial sales pitch from the tobacco companies, a number of people have though, haven't they? Used vaping and continue to use vaping and for that very purpose to try to get away from the sticks and to move to a tobacco free future. And maybe the patches haven't worked, or the gum, or hypnosis, or cold turkey hasn't worked. So, they're now going to give vaping a go. And for some it's worked. And the advocates say: “well, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Now, it's important to note, even with this legislation introduced today that is still going to be available to people via prescription, right?
BUTLER: Absolutely. Indeed. We're trying to make it easier for people to get on to a doctor or nurse practitioner if they need it for smoking cessation, if they need it for nicotine addiction, to be able to get that support. Now, I've seen the word prohibition thrown around a bit about the legislation I've introduced in the Parliament today. We're not prohibiting vapes any more than we prohibit codeine or other regulated medicines. What we're doing is returning it to what the industry said this was all about. This was always supposed to be a therapeutic product. Therapeutic products are regulated, they're prescribed by doctors and nurse practitioners, they're sold in pharmacies, they're not coloured pink with pink unicorns on them, flavoured with bubble gum, and sold to kids down the road from schools.
MCLAREN: Just on the sales thing, look, any bit of legislation - I made a comment earlier about this - any legislation is only as good as the ability to enforce the law. Assuming this all goes through the House and the Senate and whatnot and becomes law. Are you confident we have the policing infrastructure, we have the capital behind this legislation to actually enforce it? Because I'm looking at what's happening with traditional cigarettes. I mean, you know, there is a thriving black market going. These tobacconists are popping up everywhere. Who knows who's actually behind all of this. It's going on in broad daylight in Melbourne, in Sydney, in Brisbane, in Canberra, all over the place. And no one's doing a thing about it.
BUTLER: That's right. And the market is increasingly now controlled by organised crime. We know that particularly in Melbourne there's been a spate of firebombings. I think we're up to about 40 of these stores are being firebombed by rival gangs that are trying to get control of them because it's a lucrative source of revenue for them. They're using this revenue to fund all of their other criminal activities, like drug trafficking and sex trafficking. So not only is this a public health menace for our kids, an environmental menace, they're just spread through, they’re a terrible environmental menace. It's also a lucrative source of revenue for some of the worst people in our country, doing terrible things around drug trafficking and sex trafficking.
But Michael, I don't pretend this is going to be easy. This thing has exploded over the last several years, and it's going to be very challenging to put it back in the bottle. I mean, we've put very substantial additional resources into our authorities at the border, millions and millions of dollars for them to lift their seizure activities since the 1st of January. And already we're seizing hundreds and hundreds of thousands of these things before they actually get into those stores down the road from schools. But there will need to be more enforcement. We're committed to working with the states and territories. The health ministers and I had a meeting with police commissioners and police ministers late last year. We recognise this is a tough job, but it's one we've got to do for the sake of our young people.
MCLAREN: Now just with this prescription thing. I know you've got a division coming up. We'll get as many of questions in as we can before those bells ring. But let's say someone gets their prescription and the doctor or the relevant person in the pharmacy says, “yes, okay. I recognise you have been a smoker, and this is a transitory therapeutic for you” and all this sort of stuff. Where do they then go legally to acquire the vape? Because if they're going down to the local tobacconist, some of them are completely legitimate, of course, but there's also, as we've just established, a bunch of them that are just fronts for organised crime. I mean, who knows where they're actually getting their vape from?
BUTLER: Like any other therapeutic product, they've got to go to a pharmacy, a registered pharmacy. These are health care professionals who are an important part of the supply chain for therapeutic goods. As I said, this is not a recreational product that you buy at a convenience store or tobacconist. This is a therapeutic good that should be treated in the same way that other medicines are. So, we're not prohibiting it. We're returning it to what the original claim was, which was something that would be available like other nicotine replacement therapies on script by your doctor and available at local pharmacies.
MCLAREN: Okay. So now you've, you know, basically driven cigarette smoking down, although I'm fearful that all this indexation is actually fuelling the black market, we might get to that in a sec. We're now going to crack down on vapes. Look, I'm not really au fait on what goes on the street in this space, but people around me say: “look, the next thing is going to be these nicotine pouches or snus or whatever the hell they're called.” Legislation always tries to play catch up, but can we be a bit preventive or pre-emptive here with what will obviously then be the next exploding nicotine based problem?
BUTLER: Exactly, what you've got to do is recognise this is a pretty resilient industry the tobacco industry.
MCLAREN: They're not going to go down quietly, no.
BUTLER: They've been fighting tobacco control for five decades since we first stepped into this space when Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister around tobacco advertising. They're going to fight this Bill here in the Parliament now. They're going to fight it hard. I know they’re already stomping the halls of this Parliament trying to lobby. And there is this new product that's really only popped up on the radar in the last few months. Snus, as you say, it's a nicotine pouch apparently you stick between your gums and your lip and it stays there for a considerable period of time. Sounds pretty gross to me, but it ekes out nicotine into your blood system. What you've got to do if you can't predict this because the market moves so quickly, you've got to stamp it out quickly. I mean, the best time to have dealt with these vapes would have been five years ago, frankly, before it exploded in our schools.
MCLAREN: That's true.
BUTLER: But the second-best time is now. If we wait another five years or ten years, it will be immeasurably more difficult to act to protect the health of our youngest people.
MCLAREN: You're right. I mean, we're all wise with hindsight, but what you say there is very true. Just finally, I'm talking here, of course, with the Health Minister, Mark Butler. Mark, just finally just to traditional cigarettes, there's still, what, 12 or 13% of adults smoke these regularly? I've often argued that the level of excise, and we have that twice a year, is now becoming not excise but extortion because we're dealing with addicted people here. And the traditional cigarette, the legal product, is now so prohibitively expensive that otherwise law abiding people, and you know this is happening, buying “chop chop” black market stuff from tobacconists, from who knows where, no filters, all the rest of it. Is it fair criticism that government policy, particularly the addiction to tax on cigarettes, is driving now the black market in traditional tobacco?
BUTLER: You’re right to say that illicit tobacco has exploded as well as vapes. And again, this is a market largely controlled by criminal gangs. So, something we want to shut down, not just for health reasons, but to take away that lucrative source of revenue for their illegal activities. Lifting the price of tobacco is recognised right around the world as an important way of weaning people off cigarettes. Yes, it causes pain in households. I understand that very well.
MCLAREN: But my point is can you lift it too far? Have we lifted it too far? And now we are forcing otherwise law abiding people - financially, cost of living pressure, they’re addicted – to become criminals?
BUTLER: Yep. And we are very concerned as a new government about the rise in illicit tobacco. We put in place very substantial money in last year's Budget to lift the enforcement activities around illicit tobacco. Indeed, that's going to use new technology like artificial intelligence at the border to try and detect this stuff. It's even harder to detect at the border than vapes are because there's no metal in them. So, this is a big job for Border Force but we're providing them and other Commonwealth authorities with substantial additional resources to look at new ways in trying to clamp down on this market as well. Because you're right to say this, has become a pretty thriving black market we can't allow to continue.
MCLAREN: Yeah, we've got to stamp on it. Good to talk. I know you got to run. Thank you for your time. Busy day. Thank you Mark.
BUTLER: Thanks Michael. 

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