Freedom of information request made by a British American tobacco worker shocked officials at Cancer Council, Victoria. They were not able to believe that the person requested data about the tobacco usage and buying habits in thousands of school children.
For the past 30 years, the Australian council has surveyed children aged between 12 and 17 about their age, gender and location, access to money, alcohol and tobacco consumption and buying habits, and preferred brands.
The director of the Victorian Cancer Council, Todd Harper, said, "A lawyer had requested the survey data under the Freedom of Information Act, but the request was rejected because it was not in the public interest to release it. Only after the lawyer appealed against the decision to Victoria's Civil and Administrative Tribunal, we became aware that the lawyer was an employee of the tobacco giant."
"We had no idea that British American Tobacco was behind the request. 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," he added.
"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," said Harper.
"The Cancer Institute NSW was compelled to provide tobacco survey data requested under the NSW Government Information [Public access] Act," said David Currow, chief cancer officer.
A spokeswoman for British American Tobacco told, "This is about plain packaging. 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 the world, Australia first 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.
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 standardized packaging less appealing.