SPEECH - Vaping - Therapeutic Goods and Other Legislation Amendment (Vaping Reforms) Bill 2024

SPEECH - Vaping - Therapeutic Goods and Other Legislation Amendment (Vaping Reforms) Bill 2024 Main Image

25 June 2024

For more than 50 years, well-qualified public health professionals have been trying to tell Australian governments how to respond to serious public health issues, including smoking and vaping, gun laws, seatbelts, batteries in toys—a whole range of really important public health issues. And, time and time again, parliaments often prove themselves too slow to prevent significant harm to the Australian community. But I say that this government has listened and acted. Be it on the heads of those opposite, who let this pandemic of vaping absolutely explode in our community under their watch.

I say that as someone who has been an active vaper and has seen and felt its impact. I have, in confidence, conversations with a great many people about how it has impacted their lives. I come from a family of smokers, and for some, for some time, vaping seemed like it could be a pathway out of smoking. For some, it has been. For others, it elevated their nicotine addiction and therefore upped their need for nicotine in a way that meant they ended up smoking more.

We know that big tobacco has links with vaping in Australia and elsewhere, recruiting a new generation to a nicotine addiction, but frankly I care not about those facts. We are in an entirely new environment, and there are a whole range of new industries and new economies connected to the internet and online purchasing that have seen these products penetrate deeply into our community.

The 14-year-old daughter of a very good friend of mine told me of students in her own class smoking through their jumpers—hiding the vape under their jumper and sucking it through the fabric and doing that right there in the classroom, not just one student at a time but a number. I said, 'What does the teacher do?' The answer seemed to be, 'I guess the teacher has noticed, but they have not been in a position to do anything.' And, to be honest, it's little wonder that they haven't really been able to act. If you were to think frankly about the level of addiction that they've reached with a habit like vaping or smoking, that would in effect be the equivalent of coming into the Senate and seeking to have a senator having a vape under their coat because they've reached that level of addiction.

Honestly, it breaks my heart to think of the fact that the young people of Australia have been conned into this level of addiction with vanilla, banana, mint and strawberry flavoured nicotine products. I used one myself that was frankly shaped like a milkshake, coloured in yellow and banana flavoured. People talk about things that look like highlighter pens. They look like toys. It was absolutely devastating to hear, during the Senate inquiry of the community affairs committee into this legislation, the story of a toddler who lost their life because they ingested e-vaping liquid in the unregulated environment that the previous government led us to.

You let in this idea that vaping was somehow going to be less harmful to the Australian community than smoking. Well, I think it's like comparing apples and oranges, except that you're comparing deadly apples and oranges. A high level of nicotine addiction is going to impact your mental health and your cardiovascular system. It may or may not impact your lungs in the same way, in terms of cancer risks. But, if you look at the admissions to hospitals of young people who have had their lungs collapse from vaping, it is not justifiable to make the kinds of comparisons that say vaping is a safer alternative than tobacco—because there's no way that a young person would get away with smoking tobacco in their classroom.

It is very difficult to believe that smoking, at that age, could lead to such a high level of nicotine addiction as some young vapers have today. It is why I very much support providing support to young people for their nicotine addiction, under medical supervision with an e-script. I truly wish we did not have to do that. I truly wish there were an alternative. But, as those opposite say, there is the scourge of the black market in our country. Well, we know that there is work to do to get rid of the black market in vapes. We know that. But parents are being deprived of being able to have a real conversation with their young people about a serious addiction because they have no way of dealing with that addiction in their household other than to condone, to fight or to argue, or for it to take place surreptitiously. It's really important that a parent is able to say: 'Hey, let's have a discussion about your vaping and mine'—the conversation may well go—'or my smoking. Let's go and see the GP about how we cut down on nicotine use and give it up.'

I even heard a story from a teacher who said: 'I don't have to buy vapes anymore. I confiscate them off my students.' I heard someone else say to me: 'You can discreetly vape on an aeroplane even though it's banned. People do it all the time.' But I say: we see you, big tobacco. We see those who hide behind the veneer of this being a safer product that helps people give up smoking. We see through your strawberry milkshake with a cherry on top—flavoured vapes with fun colours to exactly match the youth market that they're aimed at. The tragedy is happening all around us, and the strategy of these marketeers is working.

I started my speech talking about what public health advocates have said for a long time—that where we have had strong policies on tobacco or nicotine control they have worked. But we have fallen behind in the past decade with regard to e-cigarette control. With the very diversified economic networks of today, we will, of course, have more work to do with regard to the black market. Yes, indeed, I know of several places in Perth where you can walk in and buy a carton of cigarettes illegally, and I must follow-up on that and use the hotline to dob them in.

The thing is that when those opposite say, 'You've got to spend more on law enforcement'—these are not either/ors. Public health advocates who are asking for these reforms know this too. Public health organisations like the Public Health Association of Australia have membership organisations that include harm minimisation organisations, where they have to deal with the reality of drug use in a diversity of circumstances every day. They have to support the health of addicts in their policies every day, yet they know the difference that policies and law reform like that that we have before us in the chamber tonight can make.

In that regard, while I appreciate the fact that, yes, getting in to see a GP is difficult, equally I am concerned that the Greens have watered down this legislation and that while those opposite say tonight that they're going to waive it through, at the same time most of their speeches seem to oppose it. It's a very confusing repertoire from those opposite, bar the fact that, while they say they're now going to waive it through, they didn't negotiate. Frankly, they didn't come to the party to get a strong set of laws through to tackle vaping in our nation in accordance with the strongest health advice. It's little wonder to me that they take donations from big tobacco.

I'll tell a funny little anecdote in the last few moments of my speech; I wasn't going to share it. In one of those moments in my life where vaping and smoking had led to an elevated nicotine addiction, I had begged for a cigarette off someone in the building and I was looking for a light. I saw a cloud of smoke billowing up from chairs just outside the Senate, and there were two young spivs in their skinny black suits. I went to ask them for a light, and they said: 'Sorry, we don't have one. We're vapers. We're vaping.' They said: 'Where are you from? Who do you work for?' I said, 'I'm Senator Pratt, from Western Australia.' They said, 'Oh, we're very, very sorry we don't have a light for you, Senator.' I asked these two young men in their black suits, 'Okay, so where are you from?' They said, 'We're from Philip Morris.' When we talk about the intersection of big tobacco with the vaping industry, I've seen firsthand how real it is inside this building and I have seen firsthand how those opposite are still taking their money. You may vote for this legislation, you may have mostly debated and made parliamentary contributions against it, but may the scourge of the health impact of vaping for generations to come be on your heads because of your inaction. We are working very hard to clean that up—and we have a lot of work to do—with the work already done and, indeed, with these very important reforms before us. I commend the bill to the Senate.