Radio interview with Minister Butler and Sonya Feldhoff, ABC Radio Adelaide - 21 March 2024

Read the transcript of the radio interview with Sonya Feldhoff and Jules Schiller on world leading vaping legislation introduced to Parliament.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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SONYA FELDHOFF, HOST: South Australian MP, Federal Health Minister who is taking a piece of legislation into the Federal Parliament today, which he says is a world first in the fight against vaping, which will wipe out the illegal vapes in your streets, in your schools. He also thinks it might put an end to the illegal trade. Mark Butler, good morning to you.
FELDHOFF: What does this legislation actually do?
BUTLER: The legislation will outlaw the import, the sale, the supply, and the commercial possession of vapes other than through a very strict therapeutic pathway. So, they'll still be available for genuine smoking cessation purposes in pharmacies on script from a doctor or nurse practitioner. And we need to remember, Sonya, that this product was sold to us - the Australian community some years ago and to communities right around the world - as exactly that, as a therapeutic product to help hardened smokers kick the habit like a whole lot of other nicotine replacement therapies. It was not sold to us as a recreational product, particularly not one deliberately targeted and marketed at young people. But we know that's exactly what it has become. You just have to look at the products that are on sale, they're bright colours, they've got unicorns on them, they're bubble gum flavoured. And you also have to look at where those vape stores you're talking about have set up, nine out of ten them are within walking distance of schools.
JULES SCHILLER, HOST: Is this a world first? I mean UK have announced disposable vapes will be banned, I think New Zealand have as well. So, is this really a world first?
BUTLER: These things are moving very quickly. New Zealand only announced about 24 hours ago that they were taking a very new position, and that was to ban disposable vapes, which has been our position for some time. And you're right, the UK Parliament will now be voting on that ban today - UK time - a similar ban. I think countries right around the world have woken up to an enormous deception that's been wrought by Big Tobacco here. As I said, something they presented to us all as a good thing, something that would help people who'd been smoking for decades kick the habit and it’s ended up something very different.
SCHILLER: When you look around the world it seems like the horse has bolted, though. I'm reading around the world, Singapore are putting metal detectors in their school to try and, you know, detect vapes. In the USA they're having amnesties at high schools, like we had a gun amnesty, to hand it in. You know, there's a 40% excise in South Africa. It seems, around the world the tobacco companies have outmanoeuvred governments. Would that be fair?
BUTLER: I think that is fair. Here in Australia, lots of schools have vape detectors now installed in their school toilets. It is across the country now reported as the number one behavioural issue in schools. We had stories last November and early December during exam season of kids having to wear nicotine patches to get through a three hour exam, without having a tug on a vape. This has very quickly snuck up on us. There's no doubt in my mind the best time to have done this would have been five years ago, but the second best time is now. I'm not willing to raise the white flag as the industry and some of the retailers want us to do, and say: “oh well, the genie is out of the bottle now, we simply have to accept this as a way of life.” This is a really serious public health menace that is deliberately designed to recruit a new generation to nicotine addiction, and the tragedy is it's working.
DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Mark Butler, I am reliably told that it would be very easy to go to a certain business in Hindley Street tonight and get illegal vapes without of any trouble at all. Now if I, in my sheltered world, can find out how to get one of these things in Hindley Street tonight, why can't you? Why can’t you crack down on these people?
BUTLER: The laws have these enormous loopholes in them.
BEVAN: So, once this legislation is through, you'll be able to send somebody around to this place in Hindley Street and close them down?
BUTLER: Yes, that is the purpose of these laws and to reinforce how serious we are about this, there are very serious offence provisions within them. There are periods of imprisonment of up to seven years for the illegal sale and supply of vapes and fines of up to $2.2 million.
BEVAN: But what about the kids who are just getting it online?
SCHILLER: Yeah, Snapchat, TikTok. I mean, you know, anyone with a teenager knows that you can go on these social media platforms, there's ads for vapes and there's a link, click, you can buy it online.
BUTLER: The first thing I'll say is that this is not about penalising kids. This is not about penalising users. These laws very clearly go after the suppliers and the sellers of these products. The second thing I'll say is, you're a worldly wise guy, Dave.
BEVAN: Not really, no, but let's not make this about me –
BUTLER: Don’t undersell yourself. You know what’s happening.
BEVAN: My point is that if somebody who's not wealthy and wise can get hold of them?
BUTLER: But seriously, though, we've been trying to prevent the supply of illicit drugs for many, many decades. That does not mean that some of it doesn't sneak into the country and end up being sold on Snapchat or through the black market. I've been around long enough to know that I'm not going to be able to stop every single vape coming into this country and being sold somewhere, but I'll tell you what I will do, is shut down the vape stores that are deliberately opening up down the road from our schools. I mean, the ease with which kids are able to get hold of this because of the loopholes in the existing laws, is something that no responsible parliamentarian or public health leader or school leader should be standing by and letting continue.
FELDHOFF: Yeah, but you're talking about the vape stores, and these are ones that I guess we can police. What about those that are not vape stores, that are other kinds of stores that are selling this illegally already? Why couldn't we police them now before these laws?
BUTLER: The problem with the laws that we have is that there has been this very big loophole that said it's illegal to sell a nicotine vape, but it's not illegal to sell a vape that does not contain nicotine. So, the vast bulk of the vapes coming into the country were either labelled non-nicotine or simply not labelled at all. So if Border Force or if one of the health authorities, like South Australian authorities, went into a store and seized a whole lot of vapes, they would then have to take them off to a laboratory, undertake a whole lot of lengthy and expensive lab testing which ultimately would show, as you would all understand, that all of these things contain nicotine. That's the whole purpose of the vape. So, we're shutting down that loophole, and we're enabling our authorities now to go in and seize vapes, whatever they're labelled.
SCHILLER: And whatever their nicotine content.
BUTLER: That's right. I mean, one of the real dangers here is that these things contain vast variations in their nicotine content. I mean, the amount of nicotine being ingested by young people is seriously frightening, as well as the 200 chemicals that these things include, which include chemical used in weed killer, in nail polish remover, chemical used to embalm dead bodies. That's the sort of stuff young people are ingesting with their lungs.
SCHILLER: What you're saying is that there's a ticking public health time bomb here. And if we don't crack down now and hopefully the horse hasn't bolted, you know, this is going to cost governments, including our government, billions and billions of dollars in health care in the next 10 to 20 years.
BUTLER: Absolutely. As I said, the best time would have been five years ago. But if we wait another five years, it will be immeasurably more difficult to do, immeasurably more difficult. We know the health harms that are being caused right now. This is very clearly presented as a gateway to cigarettes. That’s ultimately what Big Tobacco wants, and it's working. We know now that vapers are three times more likely to move to cigarettes than non vapers. The only group in the community where smoking rates are rising is the youngest members of our community, threatening all of the hard work of the last five decades to wean the community off cigarettes, and we’re not going to stand by and let that happen.
FELDHOFF: How do you combat the black market, though, and a potential increase in that? Because surely the flow on effect is if you crack down on this, that we're just going to see a rise in the black market around these products.
BUTLER: Of course we're concerned about that and there's a mix of black market and the convenience stores, service stations and vape stores that you talked about, Sonya. And we need to make sure that we've got enforcement action across the whole of the market, which is why we've significantly boosted the money for Border Force, for our authorities like the Therapeutic Goods Administration, we're working very closely with state health ministers. We had a joint meeting late last year with health ministers, police ministers and police commissioners, because the other thing policing authorities are becoming very concerned about is the degree to which this market is now controlled by organised crime. This is not just a public health and environment menace. This is also now a lucrative source of revenue for outlaw motorcycle gangs to essentially fund all of their other criminal activities like drug trafficking and sex trafficking.
BEVAN: How will you know if this has been successful?
BUTLER: The first measure of success from my point of view will be seen in our schools, because that really is the epicentre of this crisis. This thing has become rampant in our schools. It's a behavioural issue. It's a very serious health issue.
BEVAN: So in 12 months - because this legislation will be passed when?
BUTLER: I'm introducing it this morning. I'd like to see it passed to take effect on the 1st of July.  
BEVAN: So, if by the 1st of July next year, if there's no improvement in our schools, we'll know you've failed.
BUTLER: We’ll know that we will have to take other action. We know how hard the fight against Big Tobacco is. We’ve been fighting it here in Australia for 50 years. The lobbying up here in Parliament House, I can tell you, is already furious. But we see research and a whole lot of campaigns out there just to raise the white flag. I'm under no illusions. I was in the health portfolio when we introduced plain packaging legislation a decade ago. I know how hard these things are fought, but you can't give up. We will look next year and listen very closely to school communities and parent groups to gauge whether we've had an impact. And if we need to do more, we'll do more.
SCHILLER: Will you still - or political parties - accept donations from Big Tobacco?
FELDHOFF: Or even meet with them?
SCHILLER: Or meet with tobacco lobbyists?
BUTLER: I was a very proud member of the national executive of the Labor Party 20 years ago when we got rid of tobacco donations in our party. The National Party took $130,000 in donations from the two big companies last year. I think that's very unwise.
SCHILLER: What about lobbying? Are you going to ban lobbyists from Parliament House? I mean, why not add that to the Bill?
BUTLER: I also wrote to Members of Parliament and Senators only in the last couple of weeks, and I did the same last year again to warn them of the perils of meeting with tobacco industry lobbyists. We are part of a global convention to reduce tobacco harm, which includes a clear warning to public officials, including Members of Parliament, not to engage with tobacco industry lobbyists. I've not met with one, and I encourage other Members of Parliament to listen to public health experts, not industry lobbyists, about this.
FELDHOFF: Now, just before we let you go, Mark Butler, for those who are engaged in - what is it? Therapeutic vaping, I think, is the term - will this legislation change anything for them, make it harder for them to get their therapeutic vapes?
BUTLER: No, I've tried to make it easier. On the 1st of January, I significantly loosened any restrictions on doctors and nurse practitioners to be able to prescribe this. And I'm sure over the course of the coming weeks and months, as this Bill goes through the Parliament, there'll be other suggestions about ways in which where there is a genuine therapeutic need, people are able to get it. But that's for hardened smokers. It's for people who've been trying to kick the habit for many years, and for whom other nicotine replacement therapies just haven't worked. It's not for our kids.
FELDHOFF: Mark Butler, thank you for your time. He is the Federal Minister for Health and Aged Care.

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