Television interview with Minister Butler and Lisa Millar, ABC News Breakfast - 23 March 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler and Lisa Millar's television interview on vaping, and the First Nations Referendum Working Group.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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LISA MILLAR: Mark Butler, Minister, good morning. Welcome to News Breakfast.  


MILLAR: You can't walk a block or two without seeing generally a high school student vaping. Have you lost the battle on this?  

BUTLER: At the moment, I feel we're losing the battle. And it's not just high school students, it's primary school students as well. These vapes are deliberately and cynically marketed to children and teenagers. Some of them have pink unicorns on them, they're bubblegum flavoured. A parent talked to us last week about finding their very young child's pencil case, a vape that was shaped like a highlighter pen, made to look like a highlighter pen. There's no question this has substantially exploded, particularly through the COVID years. Numbers have exploded, and they're causing very serious harm. The thing I really want to say is these things aren't benign, they cause very serious health damage in and of themselves, and research only this week showed that they're also a pathway to cigarettes. You're three times more likely to take up cigarettes if you vape than if you don't. That's why the tobacco industry is pushing them so hard. They know that this is a way to create a new generation of nicotine addicts, which is why we're determined to stamp it out.  

MILLAR: Australia showed the world how to do it with cigarettes, restricting the selling, the way they were sold, changing the packaging. Why not try that same approach with vapes, as The Nationals are suggesting? Licence it and then put all those restrictions in place?  

BUTLER: I can tell you one thing - I won't be doing what The National Party has suggested. Because what they've done is adopted the position being driven by the tobacco industry, which is to normalise these things, to have them sold everywhere. 

MILLAR: Aren't they normalised already?  

BUTLER: No, there's a thriving black market because there's been no action taken over the last few years. But I’m not just going to raise the white flag on this. I'm not going to allow a new generation of nicotine addicts to be created amongst our younger children, with very real harm being committed today. The Victorian Poisons hotline has reported in the last 12 months, more than 50 children under the age of four - under the age of four - have been poisoned through the ingestion of nicotine. So, it's easy to raise the white flag and say, "oh, well, we worked hard over decades to stamp out cigarettes, we've got more work to do, but we've done extraordinarily well on that." Vaping has just gone under our radar and we're not going to let it go - that's what the National Party decided. It's no coincidence that the position they adopted this week is the position that's been pushed for weeks and months by the tobacco industry. I'm just not going to stand for that.  

MILLAR: How quickly can you move? What is the next step?  

BUTLER: The Therapeutic Goods Administration, which regulates drugs in Australia, today will be publishing results of their consultation over the course of summer. They had 4,000 submissions, which will all be published as well. They'll be providing advice to me, which I can start work with, with our state and territory Health Ministers. Because we are going to have to have action at state level as well as Commonwealth. We need to do stuff on the borders. To his credit, Greg Hunt, my predecessor as Health Minister, tried to put controls on the import of these products in place at the at the border, but was rolled by his own party room because his party room was infested by supporters of vaping, supported by the tobacco industry. We do have to look at border controls but we also have to look at policing on the ground, which will require cooperation from states. The TGA will also, though, recommend that we look at phasing out, banning the flavouring, the bubblegum flavours, the packaging with pink unicorns and fancy colours on it, which are not marketed to adults. It's clear they are marketed to children. So, we'll be looking at all of those recommendations. If people are interested, they will be on the TGA website later today. I want this to be a really full-throated debate. We cannot raise the white flag on this. We need to take strong action. It is a public health menace in and of itself, but more insidiously it is a well-designed pathway back to cigarettes by creating another generation of nicotine addicts.  

MILLAR: If reports are correct, Minister, you're heading off to a special Cabinet meeting very shortly, where you're going to be given the words that have been recommended by the Voice Working Group for changes to the Constitution. How important is it going to be to have that locked in, for the campaign to really get under way?  

BUTLER: I can't comment on Cabinet meetings, obviously, Lisa, but I think your viewers know how hard our Government has been working with Aboriginal leaders to reach a final set of words to put to the Australian people. That work has happened at the highest level, including with the direct engagement of our Prime Minister, but particularly the hard work of Linda Burney, Pat Dodson, the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, and others, working with the Referendum Working Group. They've been hard at it over recent weeks. I know everyone is determined to reach an agreed set of words so we can get out there and start putting the case to the Australian people before the referendum.  

MILLAR: And the reports this morning that it will have a bit of a tweak to ensure that the public service isn't constantly having to be consulted over various matters. Is that a right move or does that start, sort of, changing the input?  

BUTLER: I'm sure you understand, Lisa, I can't comment on those things. The Prime Minister will have more to say about that in due course, I'm sure.  But, you know, the point I want to make is how hard our Government and Aboriginal leaders, through the Referendum Working Group, have been at it to make sure that we get an agreed set of words, and can then get on with the job of getting out there and talking to the Australian people about why it's time to recognise the place of First Nations people in our country and in our Constitution, and through recognition, consulting with them through a voice on matters that affect them. 

MILLAR: Mark Butler, good to have you on the program this morning. Thank you. 

BUTLER: Thanks, Lisa.

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