Minister Butler doorstop in Canberra – 30 November 2022

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JOURNALIST: Do you think we need to apply a blanket ban on all vaping products, nicotine or not?

MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: I’ve announced today that the Therapeutic Goods Administration is releasing a consultation paper, which will be open for the next five or six weeks, including around the question of import controls. That’s clearly something former Minister for Health Greg Hunt tried to put in place. That import control regulation that former Minister Hunt promulgated only lasted 36 hours, unfortunately, before he was rolled by his party room. We want to come back to that argument and see whether there is a general view in the community that we should put import controls in place. We also want to learn from the lessons of plain packaging in tobacco. Parents know that vapes are being marketed out in our community with pink unicorns on them and bubble gum flavours. It’s no mystery who those are being pitched to. We know that that has been pitched to not just adolescents, but in some cases, younger children. So, we also want to consult over whether or not there should be labelling and flavour controls put in place on vapes. I know this is going to be a difficult path because a real genuine response to vaping is going to require coordination between not just health portfolios at a commonwealth and state level, but a range of other portfolios like border control, policing, and a state level and such like as well. But all of the health ministers are committed to dealing with this challenge.

JOURNALIST: So is that a path towards pain packaging for vapes?

BUTLER: That is one of the four points that the TGA will be consulting about. But I’ve heard a very clear message from the public health sector, and from parents and school communities that these vapes that are marketed out there with pink unicorns, bubble gum flavours, fruit flavours – they are not being marketed to adults. That is clearly a marketing that’s pitched to young children and very young adolescents.

JOURNALIST: All of these products, especially the ones that children are vaping and the flavoured ones, they are illegal to begin with, like they’re not supposed to be here and yet every convenience store across every major cities has got a whole shelf full of them. Where do you start, when you have an industry like this or a bootleg situation?

BUTLER: I think you’re right. I think all levels of government, school communities, parents know that this is a challenge that is the challenge that got away from the former government. We know that particularly over the period of COVID vaping rates skyrocketed and we now have a very serious challenge ahead of us, which is why we need all levels and agencies of government in on this. We need not just health portfolios, but policing and border control portfolios as well. We’ve begun that discussion in our short few months in government. I know state Health Ministers keep telling me at our regular meetings, they want to see coordinated action. We’ve got a meeting in January, particularly to start talking these issues through. But in the meantime, we want the TGA which has responsibility for the therapeutic side of e-cigarettes to get out and start this structured discussion around import controls around flavour controls around labelling controls and more.

JOURNALIST: Just on the tobacco controls you’ve announced today. Plain packaging went all the way to the High Court 10-15 years ago. Are you expecting these reforms to follow a similar path, a similar battle?

BUTLER: Today we’ve announced the next generation of tobacco control reforms. It’s 10 years this week, since we launched our world leading plain packaging reforms – a really courageous set of reforms spearheaded by former Minister Nicola Roxon. And you’re right, that was a world-first and the tobacco industry fought it tooth and nail, not just in courts here in Australia, but international courts as well. And every single legal challenge the tobacco industry threw at us, we won – every single legal challenge. And now what was a world-leading first by the Australian Government 10 years ago, is now pretty commonplace. There are 26 countries across the world that have copied Australia’s plain packaging reforms. But we can’t just rest on those laurels from 10 years ago, because we’ve seen the tobacco industry innovate around ways in which they can continue to market their deadly products. That’s why I’m announcing 11 new measures today that are all evidence-based, all of which have some precedent around the world in countries that are leading this effort like Canada and New Zealand. Australia 10 years ago was a world-leader but because the former government did nothing else for nine years we’ve now slipped to the back of the pack if you forgive my pun. We want Australia again to be a world leader because we know still that tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death. More than 20,000 Australians continue to lose their lives, disproportionately First Nations Australians and Australians who live in poor communities.

JOURNALIST: Is the Government open to pursuing a New Zealand style regime where they’ve licensed e-cigarettes for adults. Would it be something that we would see before the next election?

BUTLER: Look, I don’t think anything is off the table, in terms of the discussions that I’m having with state Ministerial colleagues. Also they obviously are having discussions with their colleagues in other portfolios that would have a role in playing in putting in place a regulation like that. So we haven’t come to a view about that. But I don’t want to see anything off the table.

JOURNALIST: What colour could we see cigarettes?

BUTLER: This is this is a really important initiative. We know that the tobacco industry has innovated by trying to make individual sticks or individual cigarettes more attractive, more marketable, in the plain packaging with health warnings, the graphic health warnings. We want to remove that advantage that the tobacco industry has sought to find for itself. We’re going to get out and consult with the community, with public health stakeholders, about what some of these dissuasive characteristics for individual sticks should look like. I want to see a discussion about, you know, colours that make them unattractive, about dissuasive messages on individual sticks, which, for example, the Canadian government has just indicated they’re going to go forward with. This I think will be a really important discussion.

JOURNALIST: Smoking kills is printed on the packet, do you think printing “smoking kills” on the cigarette is going to make a significant difference how big a gain can be made?

BUTLER: These are all evidence-based. We’ve all we’ve based all of these 11 measures on research that is undertaken right across the world, including some of the leading researchers we have here in Australia, and on international precedent. Because around the world, as you’ve seen countries follow our lead on plain packaging from 10 years ago, while we’ve stayed still under the former Liberal government, the rest of the world has kept moving. Because they’ve recognised that whenever you put a regulation in place, the tobacco industry will try and get around it. They’ll try to innovate to preserve their profits, which are made at the expense of health in our community. So these are not things we’ve come up with lightly or out of thin air. These are 11 measures that are all evidence-based with strong research backing, and good international precedent.

JOURNALIST: There’s been a surge in the eating disorder cases in Victoria in the past two years. Zoe Daniel is calling for a one-stop hub to be established in this state. Would your government support that?

BUTLER: I’ve had a couple of discussions with Zoe Daniel about this and a range of other colleagues who are concerned about the spike in eating disorders that has happened through the course of the pandemic. I’m also talking with stakeholders in the mental health sector about a response to that. To their credit, there are some responses that were put in place by the former government that we’re pressing ahead with, I’ll have some more to say about some of them in the near future. But I’m really open to ideas about how we deal with this challenge, because I know it’s a challenge that will endure beyond the pandemic. We know from previous experiences like this – big natural disasters – that the mental health tail of these events is very long. It’s going to be with us for quite a considerable period of time. And there really is a shortage of good, bespoke services for eating disorders around Australia. And I’m keen to continue to talk with the mental health sector but also with colleagues like Zoe Daniel, who have taken a real interest in this area.

JOURNALIST: Will your government committed to increasing funding for this particular issue? 

BUTLER: I’m not going to announce now what we might do. There’s a range of challenges in the health sector, including the mental health sector, this is one of them – a very important one. But we’re working through them now. As I’ve said, we’ve been working through them in our six months, we’ll obviously have a budget coming up in May next year, where we’ll have to consider a response to a range of legacy issues associated with COVID. Long COVID is another very clear example of that where I’ve asked the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health to inquire into the prevalence of long COVID and potential responses to that. The mental health impacts of the pandemic are another and obviously, we’re working on that now. Thanks, everyone.

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