Simon Chapman at 70

Mike Daube and Becky Freeman

Forty-five years ago, when modern tobacco control advocacy was still in its infancy, a youthful bundle of energy appeared on the scene in Sydney, Australia, first at Sydney University, then working for the New South Wales Health Department.. Since then, Simon Chapman has become one of the most widely known, respected, influential (and alas inevitably most abused) figures in tobacco control advocacy nationally and globally. Apart from a few discursions, such as taking up an National Health and Medical Research Council Australia Travelling Fellowship to cause mayhem in the UK and elsewhere in 1985, and then heading up the South Australian government’s health promotion directorate, he has been based at the University of Sydney   School of Public Health, where he has held senior roles since the late 1980s, and has been an Emeritus Professor since 2016.

His CV tells part of the story. On the academic front, an extraordinary record of teaching, research and prestigious research grants; 537 publications in peer-reviewed journals; and a cascade of further articles, books, reports, chapters, submissions, reviews, letters, newspaper op-eds, blogs and tweets. He has played a leading role in committees for governments, the World Health Organization, the Union for International Cancer Control and other international agencies, universities, and non-government organisations. He has been one of the most prolific and influential media commentators on tobacco and other issues in public health, consulted for health organisations and been a keynote speaker at almost innumerable conferences in Australia and around the world. And as if that were not enough, he has been a major figure in the history of this journal, as author, reviewer, Deputy Editor (1992–7); Editor-in-Chief (1998–2008); Commissioning Editor for Low and Middle Income Countries (2009–2011), and Editor Emeritus (since 2012).

He has played a key role in many of Australia’s and the world’s most significant advances in tobacco control, from  curbs on tobacco promotion – and ultimately advertising bans to plain packaging to the present ongoing campaign to counter the global tobacco industry’s resurgence and to expose the activities of its front groups. At the first meeting of the Australian Government’s National Preventative Health Taskforce committee in 2009, charged with developing new tobacco control strategies, my (MD) first question as chair was “what can we do that’s new?” – and the first answer was from Simon: “plain packaging”. It seemed impossible then, but now, thanks to Australia’s pioneering 2011 legislation, plain packaging has been adopted by 21 jurisdictions, with another 17 on the way.

And while this short article focuses on his tobacco work, he has somehow found time to be a leading campaigner in areas such as gun control, wind farms, and exposing phony science, as well as running countless advocacy training courses in Australia and many other countries.

Over the years, he has very properly been showered with awards from the Australian government, WHO, and many international, national and state health and community organisations.

And he has also been showered with attacks and abuse from the tobacco industry, its allies and front groups, and those who don’t agree with his perspectives. The kind of abuse he attracts doesn’t merit the attention its authors seek through replication, but it is often simply appalling – nasty, personal, and offensive, albeit recognising the influence his critics attribute to him.

After all of this, today (December 14), Simon attains his 70th birthday – which is an opportune time to reflect on his contributions to tobacco control, and to consider what lessons other tobacco campaigners can draw from his experience.

As a long-time colleague, one of us (MD) would observe that:

First, he is an outstanding researcher and scientist, always meticulous and evidence-based – critically important as a basis for any campaign.

Second, his constant focus is on measures that will reduce smoking and its harms as part of a comprehensive approach. If he judges it isn’t likely to work, he isn’t interested – and will say so in no uncertain terms.

Third, while a strong supporter of consensus positions and public health recommendations, he takes all the issues on their merits. If he doesn’t agree with a position some colleagues support, he will say so, even at the risk of offending some.

Fourth, he is never daunted by the prospect of battle. No matter how formidable the opposition, from Big Tobacco to the gun lobby, he does not hesitate to expose and oppose them wherever that may be needed. And to go anywhere – literally to dozens of countries to speak, lobby, train others and otherwise support tobacco control.

Fifth, while in a phrase he often uses, campaigners need to develop a “rhinoceros hide”, being on the receiving end can be unpleasant, and requires determination and sheer personal resilience.

Sixth, being a media “go to” person requires a range of skills, but also simply the willingness to be available at any time, anywhere. In this, as in the other areas, he is an extraordinarily hard worker.

Seventh, whatever the campaign or issue, there is always a sense of humour waiting to bubble to the surface – from the earliest campaigns such as MOP UP (Movement to Oppose Promotion of Unhealthy Products) to advocacy monograph titles such as “The Lung Goodbye” through to any number of skewering tweets.

A former student, now colleague (BF) observes that:

Mike’s words come from the perspective of a peer and a friend who has worked alongside Simon for decades. His thoughtful observations on a successful career that has reshaped academic norms have inspired younger researchers to take their work out in to the real world. For me, I was one of those people who attended the conferences where Simon spoke, watched his media coverage, and read his published work. There’s often an assumption, not entirely unfounded, that famous, big-name academics aren’t willing to train and assist the next generation in getting a leg up in the highly competitive academic sector. Doing my PhD with Simon opened countless doors and opportunities, but most of all showed me that tired academic notions like running a closed shop, believing research will somehow speak for itself, feeling threatened by successful peers, or kowtowing to outdated hierarchies can and should be pushed firmly aside. It’s actually not enough to be inspiring to others; there are no “one-man” shows in public health, you need to bring others along with you and create space for them to shine too. Now, I do my best to embody that same generosity I continue to benefit from in my work and training new researchers.

Both of us observe that shy, modest and retiring he may not be (and if you want to know more about all his feats, awards and achievements, check out his website for all the details, even unto details of his Twitter impressions, internet downloads, rock music bands, and ultimate career recognition as Sydney Inner West Council Senior Citizen of the Year), but Simon has made a unique contribution to tobacco control over the past 45 years, and to this journal since its inception in 1992.

Today, this one-time enfant terrible reaches his 70th birthday, with a focus on grand-parenting overtaking even tobacco as a priority. Happy birthday from us, and no doubt from many other friends and colleagues in the Tobacco Control family.

Mike Daube, Faculty of Health Sciences, Curtin University, Perth, Australia

Becky Freeman, School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Australia

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