RAF EPSTEIN, HOST: Mark Butler is the Federal Minister for Health, part of Anthony Albanese's Federal Government, thanks for joining us.
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLR: Hi Raf. How are you?
EPSTEIN: I’m okay. The Nationals suggested regulating vapes the same way we regulate real cigarettes, some tighter rules, that would actually be quite a good idea, wouldn't it?
BUTLER: It's a terrible idea. It would normalise vaping which is a public-health menace around the country. It's no surprise really that it's an idea that has been pushed by lobby groups that are funded by Big Tobacco. We only saw research released earlier this week that confirms that if you vape, you’re three times more likely to take up cigarettes. This is part of the tobacco industries strategy to get around the anti-smoking laws that have been put in place over decades. So, having made all that effort to drive down cigarette use in Australia and around the world, we've let this issue of vaping, frankly, get away from us. And I'm determined, along with Health Ministers across the country, including in Victoria, I'm determined to take strong action to drive vaping down.
EPSTEIN: Wouldn't it work if you restricted packaging, restricted imports, only let people who are licensed sell vapes, those things would make a difference wouldn’t they?
BUTLER: Yeah, it would make a difference, it would normalise vaping. It would massively increase their use. It would essentially normalise something that was presented, essentially as a smoking cessation tool, so something that doctors can prescribe for someone who just can't quit the smokes, who really need -
EPSTEIN: I'm not sure if we’re speaking at cross-purposes there, Minister, but it is already normalised, isn't it? Already there are vape shops everywhere, anyone can buy one. Isn’t the obvious response to say, to accept that, and then tighten the rules?
BUTLER: No, it's not normalised, it's a black market. It's a black market which has been allowed to get out of control because over the last few years as numbers have exploded, the former government didn't take action.
Now, my predecessor Greg Hunt, to his significant credit, tried to put in place import controls that would put this thing under control, and he got rolled by his own party room. So, what you have now is a situation where hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people are vaping, and they’re vaping illegally. They're not vaping according to the model that Greg Hunt put in place, which was a very tight prescription-based model for people who found it difficult to quit cigarettes. Now, newspaper after newspaper and a whole bunch of other groups have confirmed that these stores that you talk about that are only allowed legally to sell vapes that do not have nicotine, routinely are selling nicotine vapes, including to children and this is having profound health impacts. One of the things I think we need to combat is this idea that vapes are benign, that they're not a health threat in and of themselves. We know that ingesting all of those chemicals into your lungs, in and of itself is unhealthy, but we also know that you're three times more likely to take up cigarettes, which everyone knows is the biggest killer, still, of Australians if you vape. And these things are shamelessly marketed to kids, even in a way that cigarettes weren't, they have pink unicorns on them, they’re bubble gum flavoured. A parent told us last week that they discovered in a very young child's pencil case a vape that was shaped as a highlighter pen. This is the sort of thing that we're combatting, and it's showing up in your Victorian Poisons hotline, which in the last 12 months had more than 50 kids under the age of five poisoned by vaping.
EPSTEIN: 50 kids under the age of five?
BUTLER: That’s right.
EPSTEIN: And is that in the last year?
BUTLER: That's right, in the last 12 months just in Victoria, just in Victoria, that's the report from the Victorian Poisons hotline.
EPSTEIN: I've only got a few minutes before the news, Minister, I know you're not going to tell me everything you're going to do, but it sounds like you are going to sharply crackdown on both the importation of them and the sale of them?
BUTLER: We're going to do that in co-operation with the states. We talk about this as state and federal Health Ministers, and across-the-board Liberal and Labor alike, state Health Ministers are determined to work with us to crack down on this issue. Tomorrow, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which regulates drugs in Australia will publish the results of their consultation that they did over the course of summer and set out a range of different options for governments and communities to consider - school communities made lots of submissions to this consultation because they tell us this is now the number one behavioural issue that they confront, not just high schools, but primary schools as well. The number one behavioural issue, so it's more than health, this is becoming a very significant issue for school communities and parents as well.
EPSTEIN: Someone called the other day very upset that a vape shop opened up right near two schools, would you ask the state governments to stop vapes being sold within walking distance of schools or something like that?
BUTLER: Look, I think all of those things are options that we will be considering. That has been raised by Health Ministers, they're grappling with this, you know, every single week. School communities are up in arms about just the cynical, shameless way in which this industry is as you say, is seeking to set themselves up, not coincidentally, deliberately next to schools so that they can market these products that are shaped and coloured and flavoured in a way to be attractive, not to adults.
BUTLER: Not even just teenagers, but to very young primary-school-aged children.
EPSTEIN: Just on the health system in general, I've only got about 60 seconds, I realise the health system is complex, but clearly waiting lists public and private have blown out, clearly we are struggling to attract the staff to staff both private and public hospitals, is that going to change in the next couple of years, do you think?
BUTLER: Well, it's got to. We've got a real backlog at all levels of the health system, we missed out on tens and tens of thousands of cancer screening events that should have happened, and understandably because things were locked down, particularly Victoria and New South Wales, a whole lot of surgery didn't happen because of COVID, and we do have to catch that up. Already, we know that that’s led to an increase in acuity or severity of people’s conditions. We have to catch that up. But one of the challenges we're having in catching that up quickly is if we don't have enough workers in the system, particularly nurses and, you know, I've talked to all states about that, we're trying to do all that we can to make it easier to bring nurses and doctors in from overseas. We are working very hard on those issues. We've got to catch this up again over the next couple of years, or the health legacy of COVID, beyond COVID itself, is going to be a real challenge.
EPSTEIN: I would love to get a chance to really talk about the health system in general, we’ll see if we can organise that sometime soon. Thanks for that.
BUTLER: No worries.