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Jun 20, 2014

The letter to the editor The Australian wouldn't run

When public health expert Professor Mike Daube wrote to the Oz about their 'exclusive' plain packaging yarn, they refused to publish his letter in full. Here's what it said.

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The Australian‘s plain packaging “exclusive” is a story that just won’t go away. Christian Kerr’s story, which used research funded by Big Tobacco to argue that the number of cigarettes sold in Australia had gone up since plain packaging was introduced, was torn apart on Media Watch on Monday night. The next day the Oz doubled down on its original allegation, devoting five new stories to the claims. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics further debunks the premise of The Australian‘s yarn.

But the story gets even stranger. Mike Daube, professor of health policy at Curtin University — who was quoted on Monday night’s Media Watch segment, and was attacked in Tuesday’s Oz — sent the following letter to The Australian‘s letters pages.

He was told by letters editor Graeme Leech that the Oz didn’t have the space to run the whole thing and he could have only 150 words — despite The Australian devoting several pages to the issue over the previous few days.

Letter to the editor

As part of The Australian’s campaign against plain packaging, [Tuesday]’s editorial refers to Friday’s front-page article as a “perfectly reasonable report”. That article was based on a secret report apparently provided by tobacco interests with comments only from the tobacco lobby. The report remains secret, so it is impossible to analyse it or to understand why the conclusions differ from official figures.

The Australian asked me for comment on Friday morning — after the article had appeared — but refused to provide the report. On Tuesday afternoon, after the ABC’s Mediawatch segment, a reporter and photographer from the Australian arrived at my office without warning, saying they wanted to ask questions about statistics. I said that I would comment if I could have a copy of the report, but they were unable to provide this. An hour later, the reporter ‘phoned to say that he could send me the report. Half an hour after this he ‘phoned back to say that he had been told he could not provide the report — only a graphic that had appeared in The Australian.

Even setting aside the rest of The Australian’s campaign (so far three front pages, two editorials and multiple articles), it is hard to see how all this can be described as “perfectly reasonable” journalism. It is also hard to understand why The Australian persists in claiming failure for plain packaging after 18 months in the face of not only encouraging official figures, but crucially the reality that, as Nicola Roxon emphasised from the outset, “Of course we’re targeting people who have not yet started, and that’s the key to this plain packaging announcement — to make sure we make it less attractive for people to experiment with tobacco in the first place”.

A related article refers to me with phrases including “political involvement” and “Gillard government adviser”. I was Deputy Chair of the National Preventative Health Taskforce and chaired the tobacco expert committee. It is ridiculous and offensive to describe that as “political involvement”, or to imply that membership of expert health committees somehow makes one politically partisan. I have enjoyed working for and with governments and Ministers from both sides of politics, have no political links, and was indeed publicly critical of the last government on various issues. My last “political involvement” was as a member of the British Young Conservatives in the 1960s.

Professor Mike Daube AO
Professor of Health Policy
Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia

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