Health minister Mark Butler accuses Nationals of trying to normalise vaping with ‘silly policy’

<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

The Nationals “silly policy” around vaping reform seeks to “normalise vapes”, the health minister Mark Butler said on Wednesday, flagging strong border controls to stop the importation of vapes and help address youth vaping.

Speaking to ABC radio on Wednesday morning, Butler said that attempts to tighten vaping imports by the former health minister Greg Hunt never got through because “he was rolled by his own party room, frankly, because there are a whole lot of pro-vaping members of his caucus”.

Related: Greg Hunt delays ban on liquid nicotine imports after backlash from Coalition MPs

“So there haven’t been the controls at the border, there hasn’t been the sort of regulation put in place to get this thing under control and that is what I’m determined to change.”

His comments come as the drugs regulator the Therapeutic Goods Administration prepares to publish 4,000 submissions to its vaping reforms inquiry on Thursday.

Earlier in the week, the Nationals leader, David Littleproud, said his party wanted retailers to be allowed to dispense nicotine vaping products to people 18 and over, and a ban on attractive packaging marketed to children. His proposal was roundly criticised by health experts with tobacco-control experience.

Butler said on Wednesday that the government was considering a range of options to control the growing use of vapes among children and a burgeoning black market.

“The only thing off the table is the sort of silly policy the National party has endorsed this week which is to normalise vapes and make them freely available, really, across the country,” he said.

“This idea that the National party has that, ‘oh well, the genie’s out of the bottle, let’s just freely make these available across convenience stores and … supermarkets and petrol stations’, that would just be an awful thing for us to do and it is certainly not something I’m considering.

On the connections between vaping supporters and big tobacco, Butler said the lobby groups and big tobacco “are pushing for the sort of policy that the National party endorsed this week.”

Guardian Australia asked Littleproud on Tuesday if he had met with tobacco and vaping industry representatives and lobbyists recently.

“We’ve met with everybody,” he said. Asked if he had met with leading tobacco control experts and public health experts, Littleproud said: “There’s a doctor, I can’t remember his name, that’s made representation to us.

“But this isn’t this isn’t about medicine,” he said. “This is about regulation.”

On whether big tobacco and the retailers they represented were experts in regulation, Littleproud responded: “I think they are.” He described allegations that tobacco companies were influencing Nationals policy as “petty”.

“We don’t like smoking, we don’t like vapes, but unfortunately, they’re here, the genie’s out of the bottle,” he said.

Related: ‘I’ve lost my children to vaping’: the tragic stories behind the soaring rates of youth addiction

In a statement, the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) said it “unequivocally rejects and condemns the National party position on e-cigarettes and vaping”.

Adjunct Prof Terry Slevin, the chief executive of the PHAA, said; “It is dangerous and is guaranteed to commit today’s children and future generations of Australians to lifelong nicotine addiction”.

“Tobacco is one of the most available consumer products in the market. It is available in supermarkets, convenience stores, petrol stations, bars, pubs, clubs, and more. This is exactly the model that will make the vaping problem worse, so it is the opposite of the solution we need.”