Sky News interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

04 May 2023

SUBJECTS: Vaping, pay rise for aged care workers.

LAURA JAYES, HOST: Local news now, the Federal Government has announced the biggest smoking reform in a decade – that’s banning non-prescription vapes and hiking the tax on tobacco. It's all in a bid to close the loophole which has seen the products marketed and sold to adults, and children alike. There are, of course, massive health concerns here, they are obvious. But what about the impact on the environment? Joining us live now is Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek. Tanya, so great to see you. You have spoken about the environmental impacts of these disposable vapes before. What can be done about that?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Well, not much. Short of banning single use vapes, it's very difficult to deal with the waste that comes from particularly the single use vapes. They end up in landfill. The plastic, obviously, stays there for thousands of years and the toxic chemicals from the vapes leach into the soil and leach into the environment. Obviously, nicotine is one of the problems but the vapes are made in an unregulated way and they've had all sorts of chemicals found in them, things you'd find in rat poison or weed killer. So, they're not good for the environment.
If they do end up in recycling, some people put them in the plastic recycling, they create fires in the recycling equipment. As they get crushed, the lithium-ion batteries explode and they can burn down recycling facilities. They can catch fire in landfill as well, they've caused landfill fires. They are just all round terrible for the environment. That's not to even begin to talk about the ones that end up in our waterways, end up in our oceans, swallowed by ocean animals. You quite often see those large sea birds that have swallowed so much plastic that they starve to death because they can't fit any fish into their gullets. Bad, bad, bad for the environment.
And, Laura, really terrible for human health as well. The main motivator, of course, in banning vapes is that our kids are taking up vaping at an unprecedented rate. We know that people who vape are three times more likely to go on to be smokers. In New South Wales, the last year we've got figures for, there were 170 calls to the poisons line about children ingesting vapes; 17 of those related to kids under the age of 1. It's not good.
We know that we are headed for a health tsunami. The last figure I saw from the American Centres for Disease Control was in one year 59 people died from vaping. You say, well, 59 people compared with the millions who have died of smoking is not a large number, but we are at the very beginning of a tsunami of health ill effects. The Government wasn't prepared to just wait for that to hit. And I really have to give full credit to Mark Butler. This is - he will save probably millions of lives by changing this rule now. We don't want to see a new generation of nicotine addicts in Australia with all the health ill effects that goes with that.

JAYES: Yeah, and you are seeing it anecdotally. I mean some doctors that are pro-vaping have pointed out statistics to me that say kids who vape only 8% of them are doing it for any considerable length of time. But I've got to say, the anecdotal evidence, and everyone knows someone who vapes – whether it's a child or older, is much different to what we're seeing in those statistics. But, I mean, the previous government tried to move to this prescription model - sorry, after you.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Laura, I was just going to say about this, doctors are saying that, you know, some doctors are pro this because they say vaping is better for you than smoking. Well, the jury's out on that and most of the vapes that we're seeing sold in your local corner shop alongside the lollies are made in unregulated facilities, they're imported largely from China, god knows what's in them. As I've said, some of the ones that have been examined have poisons in them that you would commonly find in weed killer or rat poison. And we are at the beginning of the health impacts. If we knew now what we know about the health impacts of smoking, would we have taken as long as we did to restrict access to cigarettes?

JAYES: Exactly. 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I mean, it took us 40 years from the beginning of people saying hang on a minute, smoking might not be so good for you, to 40 years of fighting with the tobacco companies to finally have the admission that smoking causes lung cancer and it kills people. And for all of that time we had people going oh well, you know, it's probably not as bad as people think. Where's the evidence that there's a health ill effect? You talk to a parent of a primary school kid who is grumpy because they haven't had their nicotine that day and tell me we don't have a health problem emerging in Australia. We can't wait for this to be the massive health problem that anybody can see is coming before we take action.

JAYES: Yeah, really well said, but not only that, do we even need to wait for this data as well? Nicotine is addictive. Addiction creates anxiety and you can see that. You can see that, you know, face value right now.
It is so disappointing that this explosion in vaping has been allowed to happen, given how many decades it took us to get smoking rates down. Now this whole generation, new generation has been exposed to vaping when they never would have taken up smoking in the first place.
Look, the previous Government tried to move to a prescription model. That has obviously failed. And I'm not talking about the people who have used vaping to successfully get off cigarettes, that's great. But it's this whole generation that we're talking about now. So, my question is, great announcement from Mark Butler, but how quickly can it happen and how adaptive is your Government going to be, how versatile, if you like, if this doesn't work? How quickly do you need to move to the next tranche?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I think one - there are a couple of problems with the previous efforts to curtail vape use. It is true that the previous Government tried to move to a prescription only model but then they had very few prescribers, very few doctors actually qualified to do the prescription. We need to make sure that many more doctors are prescribing vaping to people who are genuinely trying to get off smoking. The vapes have to be readily available to people who are using them as a smoking cessation aid. But then you've got to take out the flavours and the colours and the pretty packaging to make them less attractive to kids. 
We know that one of the great successes of our plain packaging laws was that, you know, it's just not cool anymore to sit there with what looks like a box of medicine and have a cigarette. Well, we want the same effect from plain packaging of vaping and removing the flavours and so on and then we need to crack down at the borders and we need to crack down on people who are selling them illegally. So, it's a health response but it's also making sure that we are working with the States and Territories to, you know, make sure that the alternatives, the flavoured coloured ones that are aimed at kids, are not available, not readily available. 

JAYES: Well said. Can I just ask you about aged care before you go, and thank you for joining us, live in Perth this morning, because I know it's early there. Not quite midnight like Dave from the Bank of Dave but thank you all the same. Big spending item, the biggest spending item in the Budget we've just learned will be aged care. A 15 per cent increase in wages for aged care workers, about a quarter or 250,000 of them. What do you say to Australians about that wage increase for aged care? 15 percent, well above inflation, why do they deserve it?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It's just the right thing to do. We've been asking aged care workers to work out of the goodness of their hearts, caring for vulnerable Australians on wages that you can't make ends meet on. And the Royal Commission showed very plainly that the underpayment of aged care workers was contributing to high staff turnover, to staff shortages, and we need to have well qualified, well looked after staff in our nursing homes to care for the most vulnerable Australians. So, this will mean a wage increase of between $7000 - 10,000  a year for people depending on the role that they're playing in the nursing home, whether they're a nurse, for example, or a chef in the kitchens. But we absolutely need to see these wage increases so that we have the right number of staff, so that we have qualified staff, so that people who live in residential aged care get the care they need and the care they deserve.
It is a recommendation of the royal commission but it's also just common sense, Laura, that if we're short on staff and they're being asked to work on below living wages, that we'll continue to be short of staff. 

JAYES: Tanya Plibersek, thanks so much, joining us live from Perth this morning. 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Always a pleasure.