Radio interview with Minister Butler and Raf Epstein, ABC Melbourne Mornings - 29 February 2024

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's interview with Raf Epstein on the new influencer-led vaping campaign; next steps of vaping reform; private health insurance.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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RAF EPSTEIN, HOST: The ban on bringing vapes into the country has begun. At the start of the year, it became illegal to import disposable vapes. And from Friday - from tomorrow the 1st of March - it's going to be illegal to bring in any vape, rechargeable, whatever. You won't be able to import any without a licence. So, no more unregulated imports, no more mail order for yourself. Vapes will still be imported, but only if people have got a special licence and only to sell to people who will need a prescription for any vape that they want to buy.  

This is all being coordinated and pushed by Mark Butler, he is the Health Minister, part of Anthony Albanese's Federal Government. Good morning. 


EPSTEIN: Minister, I mean, it's obvious that people import billions of dollars’ worth of illicit drugs and sell them. How are you going to enforce these new rules?  

BUTLER: We’ve given very substantial additional resources to the Border Force. We asked them what they needed to do the job that we were giving to them, which is to try and shut these things down at the border. They've been flooding in for the last several years, literally flooding in. And we gave them those resources, and in just the first two months or not quite two months of the ban being in effect, they've seized on my advice, more than 360,000 disposable vapes – so now illegal. That's around three times the entire seizures over the course of 2023.  

We're already seeing a big increase in seizures. I've never pretended, I've wanted to be really honest with people that we're not going to be able to stop every single vape coming into the country in the same way we're not stopping every bit of cocaine or other illicit drug, as you point out but what we're dealing with here is a situation where these things have been flooding in and being sold to kids through vape stores - nine out of ten which have been established within walking distance of schools. And that's no accident, they're doing that because that is their target market. So, what we've really got to do is just choke off that supply. I'll be introducing laws to the Parliament in the coming weeks to outlaw the sale and supply of the vape – so it’s not just the imports, but all of these stores that are set up in order to sell vapes, that they will become unlawful, we hope by the 1st of July, particularly if we can get some support from Peter Dutton. I don’t pretend this is going to be easy. This has exploded over the last few years.  

EPSTEIN: I think a lot of people support the idea they shouldn't be sold. But, I mean, I don't have to tell you. I will give you my local example: I've got three tobacco shops near me, two of which now have, as soon as I have walked in, offered to sell me illegal tobacco. Border Force are already trying to enforce that. I've got two vape shops near my local primary school, they are within 200m of my local primary school. The question remains, is it actually something that you can achieve? You can ban it, but no one's enforcing the ban. Isn't that the problem?  

BUTLER: That’s been the problem for the last several years, frankly, a lack of coordination between levels of government. So, between state and federal government, and a series of loopholes that allow these people to bring them in and sell them. This is a market increasingly – you in Victoria understand this better than everyone - in Victoria this is increasingly a market controlled by organised crime, and they are using this lucrative source of revenue to fund their other criminal activities like drug trafficking, sex trafficking and the like.  

But this lack of coordination has meant that although theoretically it's been illegal to sell a nicotine vape, particularly to kids, there's been a loophole that says: but it's okay to sell a non-nicotine vape. So, what do they do? They just label all of their nicotine vapes ‘non-nicotine.’ What we're doing is closing down that loophole. We’re getting rid of all vapes. We're also putting in place a law that will be clearly enforceable by state authorities that will outlaw the sale and supply of any vape. We’re putting very substantial additional resources to Border Force, as I said, around vapes, but also almost $200 million in new money for Border Force to tackle illicit tobacco. As you say, illicit tobacco is also an increasing concern around the country, and again, another very lucrative source of revenue for criminal gangs.  

So that additional resourcing for Border Force will mean they go into source countries rather than waiting for them to come here and intercept them at the border, working with source countries to stop them travelling here in the first place, using new technology like artificial intelligence, trials on that technology to detect them at the border. But I accept, just as the attempts to sort of shut down the illicit drug trade have some effect, but don't shut down every single pouch of cocaine, this is not going to be a perfect exercise. 

EPSTEIN: But this is different isn’t it? 

BUTLER: We've got to do better than we're currently doing.  

EPSTEIN: Isn't this different because the penalties are very low and you can sell the vape? If you sell cocaine next to a packet of chips, the police will come. If you sell illegal tobacco or an illegal vape next to a packet of chips, the police won't come. Isn't that the difference? I appreciate the same criminals are selling them, but the police are not enforcing the illegal tobacco ban. Who's going to enforce the illegal vape ban?  

BUTLER: The vape bans will be enforceable by state authorities, in some jurisdictions those are health authorities and consumer affairs authorities. Police will become involved where there is clearly an organised crime element. So, we've already found around the country that warehouses are storing vast amounts of these vapes. Often there is an organised crime element there, and where intelligence suggests that, then we're working with policing authorities and with police commissioners and police ministers to get them involved. We've got a joint group of policing authorities and health authorities that was established by a joint meeting that we held late last year of all the police ministers and all the health ministers of the country.  

EPSTEIN: Do you really think that's going to work?  

BUTLER: Yes. I'm very confident this is going to have a big impact, because at the moment it's just it's the Wild West out there. These vape stores are opening up almost on a weekly basis, increasingly around school communities. School communities, principals, parents are beside themselves when they see one of these stores open up down the road from their school. And frankly, it's not just high schools anymore. It's primary schools as well. This series of loopholes, this lack of coordination between state and federal governments over the last five years has allowed this to happen. And parents are furious, understandably furious, that governments haven't been able to crack down earlier than this but there is now a shared sense of will.  

EPSTEIN: Can I ask you about the shared sense of will? I'm sorry to interrupt, Minister, but I did speak to the Victorian Attorney-General last week. I didn't get any sense of any specific enforcement that is planned. I realised the ban on the sale of vapes hasn't gone through the Federal Parliament yet, but there's no sense that there's any extra enforcement for the illegal tobacco, let alone any extra enforcement for what you've done with the vapes. Do you really think it's going to work?  

BUTLER: I encourage you to get the Health Minister on, we had a meeting only last Friday again, and we talked about those enforcement issues, you point out the low penalties that exist around the country for this and the legislation I'll be introducing to the Parliament in the next few weeks will have much more substantial penalties for the sale and supply of these vapes. We think it is that significant an issue. This is a terrible public health menace for our younger people. This is not some harmless product that it's being sold as, including on social media by a whole lot of influencers and other messages that are being pumped into the minds of our young people across social media. This is a very dangerous product in and of itself, and increasingly we know it is also a gateway to smoking cigarettes, which all your listeners know is one of the biggest preventable killers we have. 

EPSTEIN: I know you announced yesterday you’re actually spending money on social media ads using some influencers. There’s pictures of one of them, I think his name is Jaxon Fairbairn, there are pictures of him with a vape that sort of got recirculated on social media. If he's one of those that you're paying to sort of spread the message against vapes, does that weaken your message? 

BUTLER: I don't think it does at all. Have a look at the data, a huge number of young people are using these products, and frankly I think we've engaged 10 or 12 social media influencers, just using the percentages, I'd be surprised if a few of them had not vaped in the past.  

EPSTEIN: Yeah, so you’re hoping people learn from that? 

BUTLER: He’d vaped in the past, he's been clear about that. He's not a vaper now, and this sort of pile on by the traditional media onto this young bloke I think is really quite weird. I'm not at all perturbed by the fact that one of the young people we're partnering with to put out good messages to young people about the dangers of vaping has once vaped in the past and has learned from that, I think that's a very solid foundation to be able to get out there and credibly push the messages.  

EPSTEIN: Minister, just before you go, private health insurance premiums are going to go up again very soon. Insurance in general, I think, is going up at four times the rate of inflation. They do have to ask you effectively for permission to go up. Why do they have to go up again?

BUTLER: For a very long time there’s been a process where the health insurance providers are put a case to the health minister of the day about what their increases should be, and the health minister of the day, with the assistance of APRA, the Prudential Regulation Authority, and with our department and so on, goes through that data very closely to look at their financial sustainability, to look at their claims payout ratio - so how much of the money that they earn are they actually paying out to insurance holders and all of the other sort of things you'd expect us to look at. What we’ve been doing over the last few months since they put their first claim in is pushing them pretty hard. I want to make sure I get the best outcome for consumers here and any increase is fully justified according to all of those points I just mentioned. Over the last little while - usually over the last many years this is announced in the last week of February or the first couple of weeks of March, and I'll be doing that in the usual way. But I can assure your listeners my job here is to get the best possible outcome for consumers. 

EPSTEIN: Do they deserve to put up their prices?

BUTLER: That's the question we're going through very closely with them. I've gone back to some of them at least once to ask them to sharpen their pencil. Some of them I've had to go back a couple of times to, asking questions about things like their payout ratio, their earnings, and their future projections about financial sustainability. Obviously, we need these funds to be sustainable and viable, but we also press them very hard to justify any increase, particularly at a time of such huge cost of living pressure on households. 

EPSTEIN: Thanks for your time this morning.  

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