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Australian teens leading charge in eschewing drinking and smoking

Young people are waiting until nearly 16 to try their first cigarette and delaying first drink by nearly a year compared with 1998 figures, study shows

It was not until Fairfax Media reported the lawyer had appealed against the decision to Victoria’s Civil and Administrative Tribunal, that the council became aware the lawyer was an employee of the tobacco giant, Harper said.

“We had no idea that British American Tobacco was behind the request,” he said. “All we knew was it was an individual from a law firm who wanted the data. I’m disappointed that the tobacco company wasn’t upfront about its involvement.”

Harper said the council was concerned that, once made public, the data could be used by tobacco and alcohol companies to gain insight into the buying and drug consumption habits of young people, as well as the types of brands that appealed to them.

The data is used by the Cancer Council to help it understand where and how to direct publishing health messaging, as well as for scientific studies. When parents consented to their children completing the survey, the did so believing the data would be used only in the interest of public health, Harper said.

Fairfax Media also revealed that the same lawyer used the Freedom of Information Act to get information from surveys of adult smokers in that state, which included questions about their attitudes toward smoking.

“The Cancer Institute NSW was compelled to provide tobacco survey data requested under the NSW Government Information [Public access] Act,” its chief cancer officer, David Currow, told Fairfax.

A spokeswoman for British American Tobacco told Guardian Australia the Victorian data request “wasn’t about children”.

“This is about plain packaging,” she said. “We did not seek any personal data or information in respect of children. We’ve asked for figures via a normal freedom of information request because we want to find out if plain packaging, a measure introduced without evidence and that directly affects our industry, is having the impact the Australian government claims it is.”

The assistant health minister, Fiona Nash, said the government would not back away from plain packaging regardless of tactics by tobacco companies to discredit it.

“If tobacco companies are obtaining research on young people through state FOI legislation to increase their sales to children, then I am appalled,” she said.

In a world first, Australia passed plain packaging legislation in 2011, requiring all cigarette packaging to be stripped of advertising and branding, apart from the company name and health warnings. All tobacco now comes in olive green cardboard containers with graphic health messages.

In a series of papers published by the Cancer Council in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control in March, plain packaging was associated with an increase in the number of people thinking about quitting and trying to quit. The research also found children aged between 12 and 17 found standardised packaging less appealing.

An appeal date for the freedom of information request is yet to be set.

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