20 Aug 2015

Tobacco giant fights for research on kids

11:27 am on 20 August 2015

British American Tobacco is trying to obtain data from surveys of school children about their smoking attitudes.

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Photo: 123rf.com

But an Australian cancer group that carried out the research has vowed to fight its efforts.

The Victoria Cancer Council has been trying to block legal attempts to access the information from its surveys, on the grounds of confidentiality.

The legal bid had been launched by a corporate lawyer on behalf of British American Tobacco, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, which also reported that the same lawyer recently used the Freedom Of Information Act to obtain Cancer Institute NSW research into adults' attitudes to smoking.

Victoria Cancer Council chief executive Todd Harper said the organisation had known somebody was trying to access the information but had not been aware of the case's link to big tobacco until the media reports today. Mr Harper said the group would fight it "every step of the way".

He said the council had been surveying Australian schoolchildren on their attitudes towards tobacco since the 1980s, and this had provided an "extensive" amount of data.

Mr Harper told Nine to Noon the survey data had been "incredibly useful" in helping to protect the health of young Australians, including leading to the introduction of plain cigarette packaging across the Tasman.

"It has provided a very solid evidence base for programmes and policies to stop children taking up smoking, drinking or other drugs. This is a very rich information source to help protect the health of children now and into the future."

The council is a not-for-profit charitable organisation, largely reliant on public donations, but receives some government funding to help run specific programmes.

This has not prevented a legal bid under Australia's Freedom Of Information laws. Mr Harper said the organisation had rejected the initial request, and this had now been appealed.

He said the information from the surveys of school children was used to undertake research, with the findings then reviewed and published in independent scientific journals. But if all the data was made public, Mr Harper said they would no longer have any control over where it goes.

"This survey was made under strict ethical guidelines. It was also undertaken with the permission of principals and students and we have given an understanding of confidentiality because we wanted honest answers and wanted to respect their privacy."

Mr Harper said the survey results were rich with information about the smoking behaviour, knowledge and practices of young people - a critical market for the tobacco industry - and the group feared what could happen if that data ended up in the wrong hands."

But he said the group would continue to resist the legal challenge and he was confident they would succeed.

"We have a very solid legal case and we will continue to defend the obligations we made when we undertook the survey to keep it confidential."

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