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Archive for June, 2014

Academics and The Australian go up in smoke

24 Jun, 14 | by Becky Freeman, Web Editor

By Alan Austin

This post originally appeared on Independent Australia. We post it here under Creative Commons license.

Prominent Australian professors have been caught out making false statements in the tobacco wars started by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

SEVERAL ACADEMICS used by the Murdoch-owned newspaper The Australian have been seriously singed in the last week. They include Professor Judith Sloan from Melbourne University, Wollongong University’s Professor Henry Ergas and Professor Sinclair Davidson from RMIT.

This saga shows, intriguingly, how The Australian is following the malicious Murdoch modus operandum in Britain.

The current saga began with The Australian’s front page ‘exclusive’ on June 6 by Christian Kerr announcing that cigarette plain packaging has caused an increase in sales.

That story quoted discredited industry sources, made several false claims and omitted significant vital information.

This went largely unremarked in Australia, presumably because The Australian is notorious for these failures. Only economist Stephen Koukoulas in his blog The Kouk publicly challenged the story. His blog provides an excellent blow by blow dismantling of The Australian’s mendacious campaign.

In Britain, however, where debate on plain packaging is raging, Murdoch’s newspapers and others gleefully regurgitated the story. This was a huge boost for the tobacco industry, which bitterly opposes the reform.

Then last Monday, two things happened.

The Australian fired back at Koukoulas with the heavy artillery of Judith Sloan, a professorial fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at Melbourne University:

‘There are at least four problems with the Kouk’s analysis. The first is that expenditure figures do not allow us to know precisely what has happened to quantity, a point made above. And here’s the second problem — through most of 2013, total spending on cigarettes rose.’

As The Kouk showed convincingly on his blog almost immediately, all four points of rebuttal were actually untrue.

Reader comments following Sloan’s article in The Australian were suddenly closed and she has not been heard from on the matter since.

Then on Monday night the ABC’s Media Watch exposed the many falsehoods in Kerr’s story. It also highlighted Kerr’s association with the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and its history of advocacy for big tobacco.


‘Every bit of the report is dodgy, from the way it was set up, to what’s in it, to the lack of analysis.’

In response to being exposed as truth deniers yet again, The Australian did what News Corp often does — it called in its storm troopers to ferociously attack Media Watch and Koukoulas.

It did this when Andrew Bolt was caught lying about Aboriginal people by the Federal Court. It did this when former Greens leader Bob Brown called them on their distortions. Not to mention its attacks on Stephen Conroy over media reform.

This is consistent with the findings of the Leveson Inquiry in the UK, which found

‘… a cultural tendency within parts of the [Murdoch] press vigorously to resist or dismiss complainants almost as a matter of course.’

Leveson found that even when an apology was agreed, Murdoch continued with

‘… high-volume, extremely personal attacks on those who challenge them.’

On Wednesday, The Australian came out with all guns blazing.

Reporter Adam Creighton teamed up with Christian Kerr for another attack. Anthony Klan wrote about illegal tobacco. Legal affairs editor Chris Merritt penned a snarly piece accusing both Koukoulas and Daube of bias.

And there were two more professors — Henry Ergas and Sinclair Davidson.

Their ammunition included impressive charts and graphs, authoritative pronouncements from tobacco executives, snide asides, vicious frontal personal attacks and several bright crimson red herrings.

Thursday and Saturday continued the barrage with an arrogant editorial, plus Creighton and Ergas again.

Ergas made the extraordinary claim:

‘In fact, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows tobacco consumption increased by 2.5 per cent in volume terms in the year immediately after the introduction of plain packaging.’

That is blatantly false.

Plain packaging began in December 2012.

These are the quarterly figures on household expenditure on tobacco consumption for 2012 [from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) file 5206008, column AM]:

March 2012: 3593
June 2012: 3579
September 2012: 3595
December 2012: 3483

Quarterly figures for 2013:

March 2013: 3467
June 2013: 3521
September 2013: 3567
December 2013: 3571

The 2014 first quarter:

March 2014: 3298

Any way those numbers are examined, there has been a fall in consumption.

The last quarter is the lowest on record, 8.2% lower than the equivalent quarter before plain packaging was introduced.

The last full year – June 2013 to March 2014 – shows consumption 1.2% below the previous year.

Calendar year 2013 consumption is 0.87% below 2012.

So where does Ergas get

‘…consumption increased by 2.5 per cent in volume terms in the year…’

Only by cherry picking one aberrant quarter – December 2013 – and comparing that with December 2012.


Since the 6 June story, Professor Sinclair Davidson has maintained a commentary at his blog, applauding The Australian’s tawdry campaign.

Davidson is a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, which receives funding from British American Tobacco Australia and has long campaigned for the tobacco industry.

Delighted at another academic at hand, The Australian re-ran Davidson’s Tuesday blog on Wednesday.

It included this comment on the ABS consumption figures:

‘Then we need to understand expenditure is a measure of price times quantity. Now, with some sophisticated mathematics, I’m going to change the subject of the formula and we also know that quantity is expenditure divided by price. So now if expenditure is down and price is a constant, then quantity is down too.’

This is not true. It repeats one of Judith Sloan’s errors in her earlier attack.

In fact, the ABS chain volume measures reflect quantity only. The effect of price has been removed. This is clear from the ABS notes to the national accounts.

Just to be sure, Independent Australia wrote to the ABS and received this reply [IA emphasis]:

‘Chain volume measures provide a time series of expenditure that are free of the direct effects of price change. They do not represent quantities, such as kilograms or tonnes. They are calculated by deflating current price expenditure data with an appropriate price index. This forms a volume index.’

Hilariously, in all this, Kerr actually conceded on Wednesday that his first story was wrong, admitting amid the bluster, distractions, hypocrisy, insults and statistical trickery that

‘… total consumption of cigarettes was slightly lower over the whole of last year than in 2012.’

So what was this all about? To distract from the woes of the failing Abbott Government? To boost big tobacco’s campaign in Britain? To sink the slipper into the former Labor Government again? Or all three?

In an amusing aside, the online version of Henry Ergas’ second foray has a photo of one Murdoch target, captioned ‘Health Minister Nicola Roxon’.

Memo to The Australian: Roxon retired as health minister in 2011. Get used to it.

We know Rupert Murdoch was a Phillip Morris board member for many years. We know several big tobacco executives have been on News Corp’s board. And we know many News Corp ‘journalists’ lie and distort routinely.

But why would academics join this offensive campaign and risk their reputations becoming smoking ruins?

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanTheAmazing. Read also The Institute of Public Smokescreens by deputy editor Sandi Keane.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

Campaign aimed at young adults

19 Jun, 14 | by Becky Freeman, Web Editor

New series of ads from New Zealand aimed at young adults – an important and hard to reach group.

Debunking the tobacco industry take on Australia’s plain packaging laws

17 Jun, 14 | by Becky Freeman, Web Editor

Not having succeeded in preventing Australian plain packaging laws from being enacted, the tobacco industry has now turned its efforts to convincing other nations to not follow Australia’s lead. Last week it was reported that smoking had actually increased under the plain packaging laws – a claim that has been expertly taken down by ABC Media Watch.

Watch the full story here:

Media Watch is Australia’s leading forum for media analysis and comment. Conflicts of interest, bank backflips, deceit, misrepresentation, manipulation, plagiarism, abuse of power, technical lies and straight out fraud: Media Watch has built an unrivalled record of exposing media shenanigans since it first went to air in 1989.



Dirty Secrets… The Smoke-Less Affair

12 Jun, 14 | by Becky Freeman, Web Editor

Post written by Shalini

90% of oral cancer cases among Indian men are attributable to tobacco consumption, according to the World Health Organization.

Since 2010, India has been engaged in a major war against smokeless or oral tobacco products, including a ban on gutka. Gutka is a popular oral tobacco product that is a highly addictive concoction of more than 3000 chemicals, including heavy metals like lead and ingredients found in coal tar. Gutka was sold for as cheap as a rupee or two, making it by far the cheapest smokeless tobacco product available.

As a journalist, I had the opportunity to cover both sides of the story. The smokeless tobacco industry in India proved to be a rich lobby but one that ultimately lost the legal war.. Its most profitable product is now banned. But while that ban was struggling to make its way to each state in India, the industry endlessly debated the legality of the law. The Indian tobacco industry also argued that while restrictions were being tightened on the domestic industry, the multinationals that manufacture mostly cigarettes were facing no such restrictions on their deadly products. The industry argued against cancer surgeons, public health activists, the health ministry, even cancer victims. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the industry continues to circumvent the ban in many innovative ways.

But what interests me is one particular argument the industry made against the ban on gutka. The industry questioned the link between chewing tobacco and cancer. They have been quoted as saying that cancer can be caused by pollution, pesticide residues in the environment and even chillies! They questioned, how can a doctor or any public health activist or the government prove that cancer was caused by chewing tobacco? Oral cancer surgeons and cancer institutes across the country had already written to the Prime Minister, stating that cancer wards are burgeoning with victims of tobacco, especially oral tobacco and imploring the government to ban such products. But the industry wasn’t satisfied.

But I have now found some answers that will be satisfying, from the industry’s own internal documents.

Here’s an industry document (BATES number: 521034348-52103435) from the Tobacco Legacy Documents labelled as a ‘privileged’ and ‘internal correspondence’ from the year 1979 – a letter written to the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, detailing what was discussed at a meeting of the ‘Smokeless Tobacco Council’ on health research.

And here’s what it confesses. I quote:

“…the prevailing theory is that the best position for the STC (Smokeless Tobacco Council) is on the question of the effect on the human body of the whole product and to identify various constituents, many of which might be defined as tumorigenic in other contexts would weaken the industry’s position. In other words, it is “the other side’s” duty to produce allegations that certain constituents result from the use of smokeless tobacco and are harmful.”

It is important to note here that the (European) Smokeless Tobacco Council is a lobbying group that campaigns against the European Union’s ban on oral tobacco products. There’s a similar body in both the US, and in India  the SLTF or the Smokeless Tobacco Federation, which acts as the mouthpiece of the industry.

In this document, it is clear that the Smokeless Tobacco Council’s own health research had found back in 1979 that not one but many of the constituents in its products were cancer causing. And, that they knew it all along.

When it says it is “the other side’s” duty to produce allegations – it is cleverly putting the responsibility of proving the charges on whoever tries to challenge them. In this case, doctors, cancer surgeons, victims and governments – across the world. And they have been doing this for more than three decades.

While the smokeless tobacco industry in India is said to have ‘domestic’ roots, it is interesting to note that these companies sell their products in many other countries including the US. The Indian industry adopted the same argument, strategy and method of dealing with the allegations that smokeless products were causing a public health epidemic.

Another related internal document (Bates number: 521034371-521034372) shows that the cigarette company Brown & Williamson Corporation made a contribution of five thousand dollars to the Smokeless Tobacco Council, while choosing to not become a member. The cigarette companies took an interest in the smokeless products and knew how harmful they were, but decided to not let out the evidence. What has been typically happening in India is that each time the issue of health harms is raised, the smokeless tobacco companies and the cigarette companies turn to blame the other. They also come together at times that best suit them, for example when protesting against taxes or pictorial warnings. But once the pictorial warnings were issued, the smokeless industry fought with the government, saying the cigarette industry got away with watered down warnings. The cigarette industry was in on the smokeless industry’s secrets.

206 million Indians consume smokeless tobacco products and nearly 5 million Indian children are already addicted to them, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) and Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS). That’s more than the population of Brazil, or the population of Egypt, or Mexico. That’s as many lives at risk of painful and fatal cancers. That’s many little children whose lives are at stake. That’s an industry which makes money out of filling coffins. Of ruined lives.

That’s a dirty secret, indeed.

Shalini has worked as a television health journalist for 9 years, with CNN-IBN (Indian affiliate of CNN International) in India. She has covered disease outbreaks, medical breakthroughs, and has extensively reported on public health epidemics like tobacco control. At present, she is working with the Public Health Foundation of India.

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