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Cancer Council fights big tobacco on school survey data

Bridget Brennan

ELEANOR HALL: Health advocates say the tobacco industry is plumbing new depths with a devious move that could put children at risk.

British American Tobacco is using Freedom of Information laws to get its hands on data about children’s attitudes to smoking.

The corporation is denying it will use the information to market cigarettes to teenagers.

Authorities in New South Wales have already handed over their data.

But in Victoria, the Cancer Council is furiously trying to block the request.

As Bridget Brennan reports.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: British American Tobacco wants the results of surveys asking children what they think about cigarettes and smoking.

That’s handy information for big tobacco, which is fighting plans by countries including Norway and France to follow Australia’s lead and introduce plain packaging.

University of Sydney public health professor Simon Chapman says it’s a desperate grab.

SIMON CHAPMAN: This is a fight to the death.

The tobacco industry is desperate to get its hand on this sort of information for two reasons: it’s wanting to do all it can to try and discredit plain packaging, which is cascading all around the world now.

Some 10 to 12 nations have either decided they’re going to do it or have announced that they’re most likely going to do it. And so they’re just trying to get hold of anything that they can sift through to try and spin that it’s not working.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: In Victoria, the Cancer Council won’t give up the children’s survey data without a fight.

It’s trying to block the freedom of information application in the state’s civil and administrative tribunal.

The Cancer Council’s director is Todd Harper.

TODD HARPER: What the surveys include is information on age, gender, indigenous status, type of school, postcode, et cetera. So it’s information that in aggregate, could potentially identify people, which is why we want to make sure that it’s protected.

I’m also very cognisant of the fact that I can’t imagine any Australian parent would give permission for the tobacco industry to interview their children about those issues. And so if that’s the case, I really can’t see any reason why we would go against those wishes and hand over such sensitive data to the tobacco industry.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: But in New South Wales, that sensitive data has already been handed to British American Tobacco.

The Cancer Institute New South Wales says it was compelled to provide the survey data under New South Wales law.

University of Tasmania Associate Professor Rick Snell, a freedom of information expert, says that could set a precedent for the Victorian case.

RICK SNELL: They could make the application. Whether the application would be successful or not is a whole different matter. So the fact that that’s being release in New South Wales increases the likelihood of some or all of that information being released.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: British American Tobacco declined The World Today’s request for an interview.

In a statement, a spokeswoman says the company is trying to engage in a debate about plain packaging.

BRITISH AMERICAN TOBACCO STATEMENT (voiceover): This isn’t about children, this is about plain packaging.

It is illegal to sell tobacco to children and tobacco advertising has been banned for decades. Children are not, and will never be, our audience and we have always made this clear.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: But, plain packaging advocate Professor Simon Chapman says tobacco companies see children as imperative to their survival.

SIMON CHAPMAN: When you go to work every day in a tobacco company, you know, you’re taking, you know, your salary and your key performance indicators are that you want to sell more tobacco.

And if the tobacco industry does not sell more tobacco to young people, that industry will starve itself of new customers. I mean, that’s very obvious and that’s why they’re doing this.

ELEANOR HALL: That’s University of Sydney professor of public health Simon Chapman ending that report from Bridget Brennan.

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