Press Conference with Minister Mark Butler – Sydney – Wednesday 10 April

MARK BUTLER MP
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE

JASON CLARE MP
MINISTER FOR EDUCATION

E&OE TRANSCRIPT 
PRESS CONFERENCE 
SYDNEY
WEDNESDAY, 10 APRIL 2024 


SUBJECTS: Vaping in schools; Cranbrook; National School Reform Agreement; Education funding
 
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Thanks so much for coming out. My name is Mark Butler, I’m the Federal Minister for Health and Aged Care. I’m delighted to be here joining members from the Matilda Centre from the University of Sydney on this incredibly exciting research project that they’re undertaking, which my colleague Jason Clare, the Minister of Education will talk a little bit more about and Emily and Connor will also talk about as well.
   Vaping was presented to the Australian community and communities right around the world as a therapeutic good that would help hardened smokers – mostly middle aged and older – who’ve been smoking for decades finally kick the habit. Hardened smokers who have tried a whole range of other nicotine replacement therapies unsuccessfully and moved on to this as a potential way to kick the very dangerous unhealthy habit of smoking. It was never sold to our community or to other communities as a recreational product, particularly not one targeting younger Australians. We now know, five years into this experiment that is exactly what it is. It is nothing more than a cynical device to recruit a new generation to nicotine addiction, the youngest Australians and their equivalents right around the world. You only have to look at the products to understand. They’re brightly coloured. They often have cartoon characters on them. They’re bubblegum flavoured, they’re disposable. They’re often disguised as highlighter pens or USB sticks that can be hidden in school pencil cases. They are a far cry from what the industry says that this was going to be. We also only have to look at where the stores that are selling these products are setting up, 90 per cent of them are within walking distance of schools very deliberately because they know that schools are their target markets.

The tragedy is that this cynical strategy from Big Tobacco is working. We know increasing numbers of younger Australians are vaping including at high school and even at primary school, and they are more than three times as likely to take up cigarettes – indeed the only cohort in the community right now, where cigarette smoking rates are on the rise is the youngest members of our community. That is why our government and all state and territory governments have said we are determined to stamp out this public health menace.

On the 1st of January we outlawed the import of disposable vapes. We very significantly expanded the resources to the Australian Border Force to enforce that and already more than 560,000 illegal vapes have been seized at the border starting to choke off the supply to those vape stores that have been set up all around our schools across Australia. By the 1st of July, we hope to have the parliament pass laws that will take effect on that date and will outlaw the sale and the supply of vapes other than for therapeutic purposes which are on prescription at a pharmacy. By doing that we will return vaping or e-cigarettes to their originally stated purpose, which is a therapeutic code prescribed by a doctor or a nurse practitioner in order to assist a hardened smoker to get off the habit of cigarettes. We know that this is not just a public health menace, it is substantially interfering with the education and the learning of our youngest Australians which is why Jason Clare and I and our state education and health colleagues have been working so closely together on this comprehensive program to stamp out vaping across all recreational vaping across Australia. We’ve been talking about a terrific program here that’s been rolled out by the Matilda Centre. I’ll ask my colleague Jason Clare to talk about this issue from an education perspective before we hear from the Matilda Centre.

JASON CLARE, MINISTER FOR EDUCATION: Thanks, Mark. Every friend of mine that has a child at high school tells me we’ve got to do something about vaping. It’s one of the biggest things that worries them with their kids at high school. Every teacher, every principal at a high school tells me that vaping is one of the biggest behavioural issues in their schools. It’s one of the things that is causing them the most concern in their schools. It is a menace. Mark used the word menace I think that it’s not melodramatic to make that point. The companies that are making these products are targeting our kids. You can see that from the fact that nine out of 10 vape stores are in walking distance of our schools and what they’re doing is working because we now see that one in six kids in high school have tried vaping recently. The impact in our schools is real. Principals say it’s the biggest behavioural issue in our schools at the moment. I just heard in the way into this press conference someone say that a child in a classroom said the other day that this is smoking for kids. Now if that doesn’t worry you then I don’t know what will – another generation of Australians potentially getting hooked on nicotine through another product that’s wrapped up in fancy flavours and fancy designs, designed to hook kids on nicotine.

The work that the Matilda Centre is doing here, this program that’s designed to provide information to students in year seven and year eight when they’re likely to be attracted to those fancy flavours and those fancy designs is critical. The fact that I think 1,000 schools put their hand up to be part of this is trial so quickly, it is evidence that principals and teachers understand how big a deal this is and want to be part of this trial to make sure that we get the information to students at school as quickly as possible. The legislation is before the Parliament at the moment. We’ve got to get the vapes out of the corner stores. I want to get the vapes out of our schools and a big part of that is getting it out of the store across the road from the school. So can I thank the Matilda Centre. The research and the work you’re doing is critical in making sure that teachers have the information they need and students have the information they need in the classroom. And thank you Mark, for the leadership you are showing in introducing this legislation to the Parliament to ban the sale of these noxious products in the shops across the road from our school. I hope that all members of parliament will support this legislation when it comes to vote.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR EMILY STOCKING, MATLIDA CENTRE: Thanks to the Minister for Health and Minister for Education, I’m Associate Professor Emily Stocking, the program lead of smoking, vaping and mental health and Matilda Centre, University of Sydney. When it comes to preventing the onset of drug use or intervening early when young kids are starting to experiment with drugs what we know is from the evidence that information alone is not sufficient. Saying to kids, drugs are bad is not going to work. What we need is a toolkit of skills that we can impart to young people. We give them the knowledge, we give them the assertiveness and confidence and resistance to say no or to know how to ask for help if their friends are using substances. At the Matilda Centre at the University of Sydney we have been refining these programs for 15 or more years. We work with schools, we work with young people, we co- design with young people and I’m joined here today by a member of our youth advisory group. We work with young people to say what do you think would help you say no to vapes? What do you think would help your friend who might be struggling with addiction? We have conducted eight randomised control trials, these are the gold standard science to test whether the program works in reducing drug use and drug related harms. We’ve conducted eight of these trials among 250 schools and 21,000 young people across Australia. Some of our students have been followed up for seven years after they completed our programs. We found significant reductions in their drug use but importantly in drug related harms as well. The culmination of all this research work in partnership with our Director Maree Teesson, Professor Nicola Newton and Dr Lauren Gardner among a whole army of other amazing people at the Matilda Centre, the culmination of this work is the OurFutures vaping program. This is an online skills-based peer led co-designed program that fits perfectly within the school curriculum across all states and territories. It’s currently underway in 40 schools across Australia, 5,000 students are completing this program. We’ve had so much interest that an additional 250 schools have put their hands up to complete this program early access which is a testament to the importance of this issue across Australia. We are excited to receive the support from Ministers Butler and Clare here from health and education to highlight the issue.

CONOR HINDS, MATLIDA CENTRE: Thank you so much for that overview. My name is Connor, I’m a psychologist in training and a young person with the New South Wales. Along with many other young people from across Australia, I am part of the Matilda Centres Youth Advisory Board, who co-designed the OurFutures vaping program. At the Youth Advisory Board we champion the concept of nothing about us without us, ensuring feedback and input from young people is integrated into the interventions which affect them. This approach complements the evidence-based nature of the OurFutures program and ensures its acceptability and relevance to the young people that have engaged in this. If anyone has questions about the role of the youth advisory committee in the design of this program please let me know.

JOURNALIST: We’ve recently heard from New South Wales State Health Minister Ryan Park calling for heavier penalties behind the illegal sale of vapes. Do you think that the federal government could do more to increase these fine?

BUTLER: Minister Park is absolutely right. He’s been a terrific partner in designing these national reforms to stamp out vaping. There is currently legislation before the Parliament it’s been debated right now in the House of Representatives and subject to a Senate inquiry that would very substantially lift penalties for the sale and supply of vapes other than on prescription through a pharmacy. Those penalties range from up to seven years imprisonment and fines of up to $2.2 million. These are very substantial increase because we are determined to stamp out the sale and supply of recreational vapes and particularly to younger Australians. It’s increasingly clear that this market is being controlled by organised crime. So not only are we dealing with a public health menace, an environmental menace – these disposable vapes are absolutely an environmental menace – but we’re also seeing a market that is channelling revenue to organised criminal gangs that are using that revenue to fund their other criminal activities like drug trafficking, and sex trafficking. So we as a federal government with the support of all state and territory governments are determined to get this legislation through the Parliament. On the 1st of July, if this bill passes, it will be illegal to sell any vape, any e-cigarette in Australia, other than on prescription for pharmacy and as I said, penalties of up to seven years imprisonment, and $2.2 million in fines will apply.

JOURNALIST: And in regard to that legislation, you spoke earlier about the fact that nine out of 10 vape shops or tobacconist are selling vapes within walking distance of schools is that any particular details in the legislation that makes it more difficult to sell to us to young people specifically, or has that been taken into consideration?

BUTLER: These laws will apply to all age groups. Obviously, we’re particularly concerned about school aged Australians being given access to these vapes. We know that that’s very much a target market for industry. That’s the generation they want to recruit to nicotine addiction. But the law going through the parliament right now will outlaw the sale and supply of vapes to any Australian of any age. Other than, as I said, on a prescription through pharmacy,

JOURNALIST: Just to the Minister for Education. Just pivoting some other topics in the education sphere. We’ve heard this morning that the Cranbook teacher who’s been investigated has been fired and suspended from working in New South Wales schools. What do you make of this and does it worry you that similar things could potentially slip through the cracks in other schools around the country?

CLARE: There were very serious allegations raised in the Four Corners story from a couple of weeks ago and serious allegations raised in the aftermath of that story. That’s why I asked my Department to investigate what’s happening at Cranbrook. My Department has written to the school as well as New South Wales Independent Schools Association, we’re still waiting for responses by the school and by that body to the questions that my Department has asked. It goes to the core of whether the school is complying with the fit and proper person test under the Australian Education Act. I won’t pre-empt the results of that inquiry.

JOURNALIST: How long ago did you write to those bodies?

CLARE: I think it was in days after that story went to air.

JOURNALIST: What can the government do to ensure that cases like this are allegations like this don’t arise again?

CLARE: The responsibility firstly rests with the school. The Australian Education Act makes it very, very clear that there are a number of things that a school needs to comply with if it’s to be registered by NESA, the registration authority here in New South Wales as well as to be eligible for funding from the Commonwealth Government. One of those is whether the school meets the requirements of being a fit and proper person under that Act or whether there is evidence of unethical or immoral behaviour. That is one of the things that my Department is investigating.

JOURNALIST: New South Wales learned today that $148 million dollars will be slashed from the state’s public schools, which the education secretary says reflects declining enrolments in public schools – 25,000 less over the past four years. What needs to be done to ensure those enrolment numbers in public schools are kept up?

CLARE: I won’t make any comment on what’s happened in New South Wales specifically with funding for individual schools. I want public education to be parents’ first choice. I want to make sure that we’re encouraging more parents to enrol their kids in public schools. I have put billions of dollars on the table here in New South Wales, to make sure that we’re providing extra funding to public schools here in New South Wales, tied to the sorts of things that are going to lift results and ensure that more people finish school here in New South Wales, and I hope that the New South Wales Government comes to the table and works with us on that.

JOURNALIST: Just on that topic, last we heard from Education Minister Prue Car that you were still debating the last 5 per cent of that funding, any updates on that?

CLARE: That’s a negotiation that’s happening at the moment between the Commonwealth and a number of states. The principle that we’re applying is the Commonwealth Government should chip some money in, the States should chip some money in, as well and that we tie that funding to the sorts of things that are going to improve results in that school. The report that’s out today shows that the New South Wales Government in 2022 had funding at the level of above 78 per cent. That’s good news. That shows that if New South Wales Government keeps that funding at that level, then with the Commonwealth Government chipping in the rest we can get to 100 per cent of the Gonski level here in New South Wales.

JOURNALIST: We’ve heard a lot in the media about how this issue of vaping is quite distinctly different from the issue of cigarettes and tobacco. So how does this approach differ from the approaches that have been taken to mitigating smoking risks in schools?

STOCKING: Yeah, that’s a good question. When we think about vaping, we instinctively think about cigarette smoking because we know that from the evidence it’s emerging that young people who vape, because it contains nicotine, are two to three times more likely to take up cigarette smoking. It begs the question, how is it the same, how is it different? You’ve got to think about the environment that it’s occurring in. First and foremost, Australia has been a world leader in tobacco control, we can see that our rates of smoking have declined substantially over the past 25 years, which is absolute testament to the actions that the government had taken in terms of public smoking bans, education programs. We are following the same footsteps here. It is basically kind of going back 25 years ago, how would we stamp out cigarettes, we need to have commitment from government in terms of reducing supply. That’s one step, but we also need to care that this education programs with public health campaigns, it needs to be a coordinated response across health and across education. So essentially, it’s kind of doing it all over again, and making sure we do it in a way that Australia remains a world leader not just smoking cessation, but nicotine addiction.

JOURNALIST: And have you noticed in your research any underlying patterns as to students that are more likely to take up vaping?

STOCKING: It’s similar patterns to what we see in cigarette smoking. Young people who are suffering from anxiety from depression, other stressors related to school life, becoming increasingly stressful. Boys more likely to vape than girls. People who live in socio-economically privileged areas are more likely to vape and that is purely because smoking is more common in rural areas. We also need to look after people who are in rural and regional areas because they have fewer services. We need to look after young people who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. We also need to look out for people who identify as LGBTIQ+ as well. These are the young people who have higher risks of vaping.

JOURNALIST: How important has the youth voice been in informing this research?

HINDS: It’s been incredibly important. I think going through high school, I experienced a number of interventions, which are kind of alien and a bit clinical. The co-design process allows the youth voice to be integrated at all stages of formulation development and implementation. So that allows us to kind of be very receptive to the needs and interests of young people and ultimately increases how acceptable it is in when it’s being delivered. Thanks.

ENDS