Zali Steggall MP speaks to the Public Health (Tobacco and Other Products) Bill 2023

18 October 2023

I welcome the Public Health (Tobacco and Other Products) (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2023 and the measures it introduces to streamline, tighten and catch up with regulations related to tobacco products, but there are some key issues that need amendments in this bill. It still allows political donations from vaping companies, and I note the comments from the previous government representative and other members calling out donations to the National Party from big tobacco. Yet this very bill, on their watch, allows for an exception for vaping companies to donate to political parties. So, the hypocrisy is there, but I will be moving an amendment to that effect and I urge those members to talk to their minister, to accept those amendments.

Vaping use almost tripled amongst Australian adults between 2013 and 2019. For the first time, cigarette smoking amongst teenagers has also increased. Rates of teen vaping have been rising rapidly in Australia. According to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the prevalence of vaping amongst young Australians has been steadily increasing. As a parent of young adults, I find it horrendous to see how pervasive this has become. A survey conducted in 2021 found that 17.6 per cent of 14-to 17-year-olds had tried vaping and 3.4 per cent were using vaping products regularly. This is an incredibly concerning trend as it represents a significant rise, from under one per cent in just 2018.

It's no wonder why. There is an insidious marketing strategy by vape companies being deployed across Australia and the world to lure children into lolly shops that, in reality, are fronts for selling vapes. It's unfolding before our eyes. In my own electorate of Warringah, these insidious illegal vape shops are popping up regularly. Just as insidious is the appearance of the vapes that they sell, looking and tasting like the lollies they sit alongside. I continually hear from parents, seriously concerned about the prevalence of vapes in schools and vape shops located close to schools. Local media in the electorate of Warringah and our surrounding region, like the Manly Observer and the Northern Beaches Advocate, continue to diligently cover this issue, but the regulation is far behind. How can we have vape shops allowed close to schools, marketing directly to children?

The federal health minister announced in May that legislation would be introduced to stop both nicotine and non-nicotine vape importation. We are nearing the end of the year with no such legislation before this parliament in relation to that import.

The law and the reality are completely out of step. Since October 2021, nicotine vapes are available only by prescription through pharmacists. This has not stopped their sale through vape shops and online, often to children. States are taking action, but the federal government must also. I acknowledge and welcome the $4.3 million in the budget for police raids on illegal vape shops in the New South Wales state budget, but I'm calling on the government here to immediately introduce legislation to stop the importation of illegal vapes, ban disposable vapes and do more to ensure that only those with a prescription are accessing nicotine vapes. Additionally, I call on the government to ban such shops, vape shops, from within 300 metres of our schools. It is just incredible that that is allowed.

We must stop the trend of vaping, which has almost tripled among Australian adults between 2013 and 2019, to avoid its unintended consequences and likely another health crisis. Although vaping has been marketed as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes, there is growing evidence that it poses significant risks, especially to children and adolescents. A single vape exposes the user to over 100 chemicals and heavy metals, and Queensland researchers are even investigating radioactive polonium-210.

This bill is welcome, but it merely skirts around the edges. Its objectives are consistent with community expectation, but its substance fails to address the biggest issue facing this country in achieving those objectives. I appreciate that this bill is addressing some of the strategic objectives of the National Tobacco Strategy. It is updating laws that are approaching sunsetting, and it does form part of a broad strategy to reduce smoking prevalence to below 20 per cent by 2025 and below five per cent or less by 2030. I welcome the definition of 'selling a vape' to include having a vape on the premises, whether or not it is accessible or visible to a consumer. This ensures that prosecution of stores that are masquerading as lolly shops with vapes hidden out the back or behind the counter will not have the potential defence of the product not being for sale.

I welcome the broadening of packaging requirements to include not only warnings but also information on how people can quit. This measure has been successful in Canada. We know that plain packaging and graphic health warnings on nicotine products work. A 25 per cent decrease in smoking between the years of 2012 and 2015 is attributed to this and has been described by academics as a global success story. But we need to make sure we're doing as much as we possibly can in relation to the scourge of vaping now.

I also welcome the measures to end the use of terms and additives that imply products are healthier, whether that be 'light', 'mild' or my personal pet peeve, 'alpine'. All flavours should be banned. We know of greenwashing, but this is healthwashing—marketing trickery, trying to influence and induce people to think that somehow this product is not as bad as it seems.

I support the restrictions on sponsorship, but the government should not be excluded. I intend to move amendments to further restrict the advertising and online sale of vapes and ensure the government is also prevented from accepting donations from the industries. It is quite incredible that these loopholes are being allowed to remain, and they should be closed. It's incredible to listen to the speeches from government members accusing the National Party of accepting political donations from the tobacco industry. That loophole should be closed, but so should this one. I wonder how aware Labor members are that this legislation they purport to endorse allows for an exception of political donations from vaping companies. Is this really the standard you stand by? Are these the values the parents in your communities expect of you?

I'm supportive of this legislation, but I will put forward amendments with the intent of making this legislation even better and make a statement on what I know are the expectations of parents around the country. We need to delete a number of clauses from this legislation. The practical effect of this will be to further restrict physical advertising, online advertising and advertising on aeroplanes for vapes and online sale of vapes. The amendment in relation to the clause on political donations and electoral expenses will ensure that our political system is not influenced by donations from the vaping lobby.

It's quite extraordinary that that loophole is being allowed to remain. It's perplexing. When I convey that to parents around my electorate, they are simply dumbfounded. I urge members of the government to talk to their Minister for Health and Aged Care. Go back and ask just why this loophole is being allowed to remain in this legislation. It's time to genuinely close loopholes. If we are focused on the health of our children and the next generation and we want to stop the scourge of vaping influencing them, getting them hooked on nicotine, then let's genuinely do it, but let's make sure we don't have politicians in this place also hooked on nicotine.