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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Deep breaths needed instead of talk about binning Big Tobacco access rights

The Nick Baker - Richard McKenzie piece in Fairfax Media on the two pronged attempt to utilise freedom of information laws to obtain data from surveys on smoking has raised some interesting issues. 

However some reactions - that the applicant shouldn't be able to exercise the right to seek access to government information, that this sort of thing may frustrate public health research and may even warrant legislative amendment - seem way over the top. 

(Addendum- an opinion piece from the Los Angeles Times on the right to access scientific research undertaken at public expense-within limits. And more pertinently this on "Big Tobacco' FOI rights on The Conversation UK and this on The Conversation Australian version. I'm with Nola Ries of University of Newcastle-tobacco companies should be free to use FOI laws even if we don't like it.)

Without seeing the detail of what was sought, what was released in NSW and what reasons were given for refusal of access in Victoria it's difficult to muster the outrage running in some commentary, or be concerned the laws don't adequately protect sensitive information and data.

Baker and McKenzie report a lawyer acting for American Tobacco obtained Cancer Institute NSW research into adults' attitudes to smoking through an application under the Government Information (Public Access) Act. But the Victorian Cancer Council "is spending thousands of dollars" fighting an FOI application from the same lawyer in the Civil and Administrative Tribunal "for data from surveys by thousands of Victorian school children and teenagers that reveal their attitudes to smoking and alcohol."

Just what was sought and obtained from the Cancer Institute NSW is unknown. The Chief Cancer Officer, Professor David Currow said "The Cancer Institute NSW was compelled" to provide tobacco survey data requested under the GIPA act.There are plenty of public interest considerations designed to safeguard sensitive information from disclosure but not possible to comment on the decision without more detail.

The GIPA act differs in many respects from Victoria's FOI act.

There, the yet to appear VCAT decision will throw light on the exemption claims in due course.
Both Victorian Cancer Council Director Todd Harper and Professor of Health Policy at Curtin University Mike Daube (see below) are outraged but whether their concerns about release of de-identified data amount to valid exemption claims is yet to be seen.

FOI is no stranger to Big Tobacco but the idea of a 'block tobacco' FOI amendment is just plain silly.

Mr Harper said releasing the data would be in "direct conflict with the wishes of parents and schools" who gave permission for students to conduct the surveys on the basis of confidentiality and that it would be used in the interests of public health."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.
Professor of Health Policy at Curtin University Mike Daube said there was no guarantee the survey data would not also be accessed by alcohol companies if released, while warning that future FOI applications by tobacco and alcohol companies could be used to frustrate public health research. "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." He warned that even if the FOI application was defeated, Big Tobacco or its lawyers would still "have distracted a Cancer Council and world-leading researchers from their work". "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?" He said governments might need to amend FOI legislation to prevent it being used in this way."

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