Radio Interview with Minister Butler and Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast - 23 March 2023

Read the transcript of the radio interview with Minister Butler and Patricia Karvelas on vaping and the National Occupational Respiratory Disease Registry.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Minister, welcome back to the program. 


KARVELAS: The vape black market has exploded. Is it too far gone? Can you really limit their use? 

BUTLER: You’re right, it has exploded. On some estimates almost as many people are vaping now as are using traditional cigarettes. It is a very serious public health issue, but I'm committed to making sure we get this back under control because we absolutely must. You're right, vaping in and of itself is dangerous, it is bad for your health to be ingesting that many chemicals into your lungs, we know that it causes substantial lung damage including diseases like popcorn lung, but we are also particularly concerned because this industry is so shamelessly marketing to children - products with pink unicorns on them, bubblegum flavour and suchlike. It is causing very real harm to our children right now. The Victorian Poisons hotline in the state you're in right now has reported that in the last 12 months, more than 50 children under the age of four, have had to be reported to that hotline because of the dangerous ingestion of nicotine. 

KARVELAS: Sorry. Did you say under four, Minister?  

BUTLER: Under four, under four years of age.  

KARVELAS: What? What’s happening? 

BUTLER: This is now the biggest behavioural issue in primary schools. This is an industry shamelessly marketing, not just to teenagers but to young children. When you look at these things with pink unicorns on them and bubblegum flavoured - these aren't marketed to adults. This is an industry that is trying to create a new generation of nicotine addicts. So, they get around all of the hard work, our country and other countries have done over recent decades to stamp out smoking.  

KARVELAS: Part of the issue is the importation of vaping products, should this be banned or greater regulation? What are you looking at? 

BUTLER: We're looking at absolutely everything. You’re right. The Therapeutic Goods Administration - The TGA which regulates drugs in Australia has been conducting a really deep consultation over summer. And today on their website they will publish a summary of their report and also all 4,000 submissions. If people have a lot of time on their hands, they can go through them as well, but they will be talking about things like import controls, talking about strong regulation around the marketing of these products. But Health Ministers when we met a couple of weeks ago were at pains to stress that every single option is on the table as far as we're concerned. Except might I say the option that the National Party has adopted - an option presented by the tobacco industry, which is essentially to normalise these products around the country – we're certainly not going to be doing that, but import control is obviously critical. To his credit, my predecessor Greg Hunt tried to put in import controls on these products, he recognised how unhealthy they were, what a menace they were, but they only lasted a couple of weeks before he was rolled by his own party room that has a whole lot of very strong pro-vaping advocates still in it.  

KARVELAS: Vaping is supposed to be illegal for children under 18, but you'll be hard pressed not to find dozens of vapes in schools. I mean, as you've said, and anyone who knows anything about the education system or has kids at school knows that vaping is widespread. Do you believe you can really stop young people getting access to them, and how?  

BUTLER: We're going to need determined effort on the part of the Commonwealth Government and the state governments, and they recognise that. School communities are crying out for help from us as I said, my colleague, Jason Clare, the Education Minister tells me, and school communities tell me, the number one behavioural issue in schools now is vaping. A parent told us last week that they found in their very young child's pencil case - not a 16/17-year-old - but a very young child's pencil case a vape that was deliberately designed to look like a highlighter pen. These things are insidious, they are causing very real damage not just to the health of very young children, but to behavioural issues at schools as well, so I don't pretend this is going to be easy. This thing was allowed to explode over the last several years, the number of vapers has skyrocketed, particularly during the COVID pandemic. But we can't just say: “oh well, it's all too hard, let's just normalise it, because we know why these products exist” - why these products exist and are pushed so hard by the tobacco industry is because they want to create a pathway back to cigarettes. We've seen research this week produced that if you vape you are three times as likely to take up cigarettes. And that's why you see behind all of this advocacy, all of these ideas about how we can regulate these things, you don't have to look very hard to find tobacco industry lobbyists essentially funding and driving this work.

KARVELAS: How active have they been in Canberra in trying to ensure that there isn't regulation of vaping?

BUTLER: Well, they are pretty active. They haven’t darkened my doorstop; they wouldn't get in.

KARVELAS: But what do you mean, have you banned them coming in? 

BUTLER: Yeah, we're signed up to a convention with the World Health Organization that health officials don't work with and don't meet with tobacco industry lobbyists. I mean that’s a longstanding - 

KARVELAS: And you’ve accused The Nationals leader of talking to them, right? 

BUTLER: He announced a position earlier this week that has been driven by tobacco industry lobbyists. They've published it. The two dots are right alongside each other; you don't have to work very hard to connect them. This is a party that is still the only major party that takes tobacco donations. Essentially, what they've done is just taken the front page of a policy document driven by the tobacco industry and adopted as The National Party policy. What they would do is have nicotine vapes sold right through Australia in every convenience store, every petrol station, normalising a product that has been created by and large to form a pathway back to cigarettes, create a new generation of nicotine addicts, and there is no way I'm going to be a part of that.  

KARVELAS: I want to talk to you about another important issue, a new national registry has been proposed to record patients with silicosis - that's the lung disease caused from inhaling silica dust, often from cutting up engineered stone. What would that registry do? 

BUTLER: That registry would allow us to track and follow the progress of this this insidious disease. I think people are shocked, and I'm shocked, at just how quickly the numbers of this disease have climbed in Australia. There are potentially tens of thousands of Australians impacted by this terminal disease and we've got a particular love of engineered stone kitchen tops here in Australia, quite out of proportion to any other country, so the use of that stone in that context is one of the big drivers of the disease here in Australia. This is a program that has really been driven both by the health portfolio but led by the workplace relations portfolio, because the SafeWork part of our government - working with state governments - is now looking at a ban on particular types of engineered stone, and we at the Commonwealth level are looking at a ban on the import of these dangerous types of engineered stone. Unfortunately, tragically, there are many thousands of Australians who have already contracted this disease, people who work directly with this product, cutting it and inhaling the dust, but also people who are working indirectly - I've met a couple of times with young mum who worked as an office worker in one of these workplaces and to her dismay, obviously, she's discovered that she's picked this up by just working in the office of a place where this stone is cut and is used. So, the registry will allow us to track these patients, to be able to track their work history, so that we can go back to the workplace and screen other workers who have been there and put them on to treatment as well.  

KARVELAS: And Minister, is there going to be an $8,000 fine for doctors if they fail to report patients and their and their workplaces to the national registry? 

BUTLER: We’ve worked closely with state governments and with clinician groups to make sure this registry actually works. I mean, to make it work - 

KARVELAS: So, can you confirm that $8000? 

BUTLER: It’s got to be a mandatory registry, and to be mandatory there's got to be a consequence for not uploading to it. These registries already exist in New South Wales and Queensland, it’s not much point having state-based registries. We want a national registry. And of course, there would be consequences for not following the procedure of a mandatory registry, not to follow that would have very serious health consequences for people -  

KARVELAS: So is that $8,000 figure accurate? -  

BUTLER: To make it work we’ve got to mandate it. Sorry, I didn't hear that question? 

KARVELAS: Is that $8000 fine figure accurate? 

BUTLER: Yes, I mean, obviously that's a maximum. We want to make sure that clinicians are encouraged to do this, this is serious, they understand that - this has life-and-death consequences, to put in place a system that allows us to track patients, to go back to the workplaces that they might have worked at and potentially screen other workers, of course, there are consequences for not following the procedures of a mandatory registry - that already exists in Queensland and in New South Wales. We've worked closely with state governments and with clinicians groups to design this, we don't do it lightly. But this is a very serious issue with life and death consequences. 

KARVELAS: I just want to change the topic again. Today a protest is expected to happen outside Parliament House, led by anti-transgender rights campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen, now she's used all sorts of language, if you've listened to her, and I have. She's used all sorts of language, including that people are being surgically mutilated, children are being sterilised. You're the Health Minister, this is pretty inflammatory language, is that what's happening in Australia? 

BUTLER: Well, it's inflammatory, and it is hateful and it is designed to divide our community. And it preys upon a group in our community who are far more susceptible to mental health issues, to suicidal ideation - I've seen the statistics, I've talked to those groups, I know how vulnerable they are given the deep stigma that is still there in parts of our community. So, these protests are divisive, they are hateful. Of course, there's a right to peaceful protest in this country but for the life of me I can't do anything but condemn a protest that is deliberately designed to bring together people to express hate, to express division, and I condemn it.  

KARVELAS: What sort of impact is it having on the trans community at the moment? From the demonstration on the weekend, Nazi salutes, really inflammatory language, what kind of real-life consequences is there on this community as a result? 

BUTLER: I haven't had the opportunity over the last few days to talk to those representatives but it's not hard to conclude what sort of affect it's having on those groups. I had some great opportunities to talk to those groups during WorldPride in Sydney which was just a terrific event, we announced a whole range of investments in improving the health of LGBTIQ+ Australians, including particularly focusing on the particular health challenges of trans Australians, many of them are mental health related. So, we're doing all that we can to recognise those and support those Australians to live a healthy contributing life in our community, and protests like this are just so divisive and hateful. 

KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us this morning, Minister. 

BUTLER: Thank you Patricia.

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