Radio interview with Minister Butler on ABC Radio Sydney Mornings - 7 February 2024

Read the transcript from Minister Butler's interview on ABC Radio Sydney Mornings with Sarah McDonald which covered vaping.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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SARAH MACDONALD, HOST: Countries around the world are now adopting our plain packaging for cigarettes. We have been world leaders in bringing smoking down, and we thought “mission accomplished”. But now: a new generation hooked on nicotine from vaping. Yesterday we talked about the seizing of a million dollars' worth of nicotine vapes in the city, Kings Cross, and the south area of Sydney. And then you were telling me about the new vape shops and the old vape shops in your area and it was basically a suburb roll call from Cronulla to Northern Beaches, from King Street to Penrith, vape shops everywhere, often right next to schools. It's kind of whack a mole for the Department of Health, you report these, and they have raids, and then more pop up. Well, the Health Minister Ryan Park of New South Wales, told us there's federal legislation coming that should wipe out nicotine vapes being sold, for good, unless you have a prescription and you go to a pharmacy. Mark Butler is the federal Health Minister and we thought we'd find out more. Good morning to you.
MACDONALD: These shops are absolutely everywhere. You must see them right next to schools. How do you feel about them?
BUTLER: There was some research released only in the last couple of weeks that found out that nine in 10 vape stores are located within walking distance of schools. And there's good reason for that – well, there is a reason for that, and it's not good - and that is: that this is the target market for this new public health menace.
We were sold this - communities around the world - were sold vapes as a therapeutic good. The company said: “this is a therapeutic product that will help hardened smokers” - usually middle and older age smokers - who have smoked for decades and found it very hard to kick the habit, “this will help them.” And we bought that, as countries. What's become absolutely clear, is that that was complete rubbish. What this thing is designed to do is to hook a new generation to nicotine addiction. And tragically, it's working. It's working right across the world. And your listeners will be experiencing that through their own children or grandchildren or other children that they know. School communities now tell us this is the number one behavioural issue they face, principals, parents, communities and so on. And it's just exploded over the last several years.
We've had a good debate about this over the last 12 months, terrific cooperation by state health ministers, including Ryan Park, but also the Prime Minister and the Premiers have given a very clear direction to us as health ministers and police ministers to stamp this public health menace out. I don't pretend to your listeners it's going to be easy because this thing has utterly exploded, the borders were completely open for the last several years, and it's going to take a series of stringent measures that we are committed to putting in place. The first one came into effect on the 1st of January, which means it is now illegal to import any disposable vapes. That's new. For the last several years, vapes have been flooding into this country and state authorities and state governments have rightly said to Commonwealth: “well, it's all well and good for you to say we should do more policing, you're not stopping these things at the border in the first place.” So, that's the first thing we're going to do.
MACDONALD: Yeah, so and that's coming in already and we've seen some busts on the ports in terms of that. But what can we do to stop the physical shops, because they're still obviously getting in, or they've got a major surplus of supply that they're hiding in walls and ceilings?
BUTLER: That's right. The first stage was we wanted to start choking off the supply from overseas. We've had good results already. In just a matter of weeks, we seized 250,000 vapes in the first three or four weeks of the ban. The next step is for us to outlaw the sale and the supply of vapes, and we will be introducing legislation into the Commonwealth Parliament - the Australian Parliament - in the coming few weeks. We hope to have that passed with the support of all parliamentarians and that will be able to be enforced by all state and territory governments.
When Ryan Park and I and other health ministers were first getting advice about this last year, there was a view that perhaps we'd have to pass new laws in every single parliament of the country, which obviously would have taken a long time. We've now got advice that we can do a single law through the Australian Parliament, and that will cover all of the country, and will be able to be enforced by state health authorities, including New South Wales and state policing authorities as well. We've worked out now, after getting very significant intelligence briefings from police commissioners and other authorities, that not only is this a public health menace, it's a market that increasingly is controlled by organised criminal gangs. This is a huge source of revenue for them. In Victoria, there are dozens of fire bombings happening between two rival gangs that are fighting it out for control of this lucrative market. So not only is it hooking our kids to nicotine and providing a gateway to cigarette smoking for them, it's also a lucrative source of revenue for these criminal gangs to bankroll drug trafficking, sex trafficking and all of their other criminal work.
MACDONALD: Nasty business. I mean, they are illegal to sell them now if they've got nicotine and to young people, and yet they're doing it in plain sight. And often we see this TSG franchise, the Tobacco Station Group, which seems to be a model and they're still opening. So, are we sure that this new federal legislation, when we get it, will make that impossible?
BUTLER: The big problem for enforcement authorities, whether it was health authorities or police, is that there was this big loophole in the legislation previously which said it was okay to import and sell vapes with no nicotine, but not okay to import and sell vapes with nicotine. What we've found is that the vapes that come in almost invariably either have a label on that says, “no nicotine” or they have no label at all. When authorities went in and seized a group of vapes, they had to send them off and do very time consuming, costly lab testing to see whether or not they were nicotine or non-nicotine. Overwhelmingly, of course, your listeners will understand, they all contain nicotine. I mean, why else would you vape?
MACDONALD: Yes, so you're banning them all under this new legislation?
BUTLER: We’re getting rid of this ridiculous loophole that has allowed these things to flourish, deliberately targeted our kids. It’s not a therapeutic product when you've got pink unicorns on them and rainbows and they’re bubble gum flavour or cherry cola flavour.
We all understand what's happening here now. This is a cynical, duplicitous exercise by the tobacco industry to undo all of the work. You mentioned the plain packaging laws, all of the work over five decades to unhook our community and communities around the world from the dreadful health consequences of cigarette smoking. That's all at risk. The only group in our community now where cigarette smoking rates are going up are our youngest adults, and the gateway to that for them is vapes.
MACDONALD: Oh, it's extraordinary. So, you mentioned this federal law that's upcoming, it will close off this loophole, it will make all vapes illegal. When is it coming? When will you introduce it to Parliament?
BUTLER: I'll introduce it over coming weeks. Let me just say there will be one legal pathway to get a vape in Australia still. We’ve said: if there is a genuine therapeutic need for a vape, you'll still be able to get one but the vapes that come in will have to have a permit from the Office of Drug Control. They'll have to comply with very strict conditions, they have to be pharmaceutically packaged - not all these bright colours. They have to have no flavours. They'll have to have prescribed concentrations of nicotine, and they'll only be able to be sold through a pharmacist - not these vape stores or convenience stores - through a pharmacist, on a prescription by a doctor. So, if you're a hardened smoker, you have a genuine therapeutic need for this, there will still be a way to get it.
MACDONALD: You go to the doctor and then you go to the chemist?
BUTLER: That's right. None of this recreational vaping. There will be some legal ability to get a vape, but we intend to introduce the laws to the Parliament in the coming few weeks, and I hope to have them passed in the few months.
MACDONALD: Have you got support from the opposition on this, from the independents, will it get through easily?
BUTLER: I'm hopeful for support from the Opposition. We've struggled to get their support on plain packaging. I was in the health portfolio more than a decade ago when we were doing this, Peter Dutton was very resistant initially to our plain packaging laws. He said: “they were a bridge too far.” I hope he takes a different view on this.
The independents are very strongly supportive. I only had a meeting with the crossbench last night about this and Allegra Spender was telling me about her electorate in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, where you have vape stores open 100m down the road from some of her schools. Parents are beside themselves.
MACDONALD: Oh, I know, I got seriously hundreds of texts yesterday opposite all these schools - Normanhurst station there's one opposite there - and there's seven schools in that area, says Jenny right now. So, it looks like it'll go through. When will it then become law? If you get it through in the next couple of weeks?
BUTLER: We’re not going to get it through in the next couple of weeks.
MACDONALD: Right, it'll be introduced then?
BUTLER: Yeah, it will be introduced and then we'll have to go through time frames in the Senate. I want it to happen towards the middle of this year. We’re sending a very clear signal though to the vape stores: your business model is going, you're going to have to think of a new way to make money, because making money selling vapes to young kids, getting them hooked on nicotine is going. The convenience stores that sell a range of products - lollies and chips and all the rest that are legal - if part of your business model is these vapes, that's going as well and it's going in the coming months. So, you need to adjust now, you need to think about another way to make money.
MACDONALD: Get ready for it. I do want to ask you though, why has it taken so long? How do we get outsmarted by the vape industry?
BUTLER: I do have to say, my predecessor, Greg Hunt, the Coalition Health Minister under the former government, tried to shut these things down at the border. He put in place a strong import control regulation, but he was rolled by his own party room within less than two weeks, and the regulation had to be repealed. The tobacco lobby still treads the corridors of the Australian Parliament.
MACDONALD: Have they come to see you as the Health Minister?
BUTLER: No and I wouldn't see them. There are clear provisions in the International Convention against Tobacco that should stop decision makers like me as the Health Minister from engaging with the tobacco industry. Frankly, they've never tried to see me, as far as I know.
I've been very frank. Our job is to push tobacco into the dustbin of history as much as possible. We passed really good laws in December to update those plain packaging laws that you talked about; 42 countries have since followed our lead on plain packaging, that's a huge credit to the work of Nicola Roxon, the then Health Minister, who stepped out as the world leader on this. We did have to update not just vapes, but the cigarette industry had started to get around the intent of those laws by marketing cigarettes in a new way that was attractive to young people. The slim, sleek Vogue cigarettes, different types of filter tips, menthol bombs in them that would explode when you sucked on the cigarette and things like that, all of that is going as well because of new laws that we passed just before Christmas.
It can't just be about vapes, we've got to clamp down on vapes, but we’ve also got to update our laws about cigarettes, because the last thing we want to see is people get off the vapes and move back to the cigarettes. We are determined to make sure that doesn't happen.
MACDONALD: Yeah, A couple of people texting me about illegally imported cigarettes in some of these shops too. So, lots of work to do, hopefully by the middle of the year. Reports of new ones jumping up near Cammeray Public School very recently too. So hopefully they'll be out of business by the middle of the year. Thanks for your time this morning.
BUTLER: Thanks Sarah.

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