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Big Tobacco after data on Aussie kids’ attitudes

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A global tobacco giant has been accused of using freedom of information laws to obtain taxpayer-funded research showing Australian school children and teenagers’ attitudes to smoking and alcohol.

Public health advocates are concerned that ‘Big Tobacco’ may use the data to hone their marketing of cigarettes to teenagers, as well as to fight plain packaging laws, which are now being implemented across the globe.

British American Tobacco (BAT) is trying to access data from the Victorian Cancer Council Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug Survey.

The lawyer seeking the Victorian information for BAT was recently successful in obtaining the Cancer Institute NSW research into adults’ attitudes to smoking, by using the FOI Act.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Institute felt legally compelled to disclose the data, which effectively gave Big Tobacco access to millions of dollars worth of taxpayer funded research for the price of an FOI application.

The information was then used by the tobacco company last year in Britain to contest plain packaging laws.

The Victorian Cancer Council is currently fighting the FOI application in the Victorian Civil and Administive Tribunal.

Victorian Cancer Council CEO Todd Harper said that they are doing everything they can, and are concerned that handing over the data would breach confidentiality and have a chilling effect on future research.

“If this information were to be used for commercial purposes, for instance to hone or localise tobacco or alcohol marketing and pricing strategies to appeal to the young, provision of such information would be highly detrimental to Victoria’s children,” Mr Harper said.

A spokesperson for BAT told the Sydney Morning Herald that the company was seeking information to bolster its case that instead of Australian youth smoking rates going down because of plain packaging, that they’re going up.

“Any evidence to prove the latter needs to be highlighted so that other countries around the world don’t make the same mistake. Any such evidence is also relevant to the Government’s Post Implementation Review into plain packaging, which is still underway,” the spokesperson said.

“In this context, any such request for an FOI to obtain this information is both reasonable and legitimate. Importantly none of the FOI applications sought any personal data or information in respect of children or adolescents,” the spokesperson said.

In a statement provided to Medical Observer the company said that “it is illegal to sell tobacco to children and tobacco advertising has been banned for decades. Children are not, and never will be, our audience and we have always made this clear.”

The survey collects information from students aged 12-17 about their smoking and drinking practices, including what brands they prefer.

The Assistant Minister for Health, 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,” Ms Nash said.

Professor of Health Policy at Curtin University Mike Daube said the FOI application for the school survey data takes the tobacco industry into new lows.

“The companies claim that they have no interest in children – yet they are going to extraordinary lengths to access research data about children and tobacco, alcohol and drugs,” Professor Daube told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“This use of FOI legislation by the world’s most lethal industry raises another issue of enormous concern. If Big Tobacco can use FOI to harass a Cancer Council, what is to stop them using FOI to obtain information from any researchers employed by universities, or to tie them up in endless legal battles?”

Kirsty Waterford