Last year the Victorian government modified the state Freedom of Information laws to exempt the Victorian Cancer Council. This was in response to a perfectly legitimate request for underlying survey data that researchers at the Victorian Cancer Council had collected and had been funded by the Australian federal government (through the Department of Health and Aging).
Cancer Council Victoria’s reputation as a research body would be “significantly damaged” if it was forced to hand over confidential survey information on plain-packaged cigarettes to a big tobacco company, a Melbourne court has been told.
British American Tobacco is appealing the Freedom of Information (FOI) commissioner’s decision to knock back an application by the company to access a range of data, including the attitudes of school students towards smoking.
I don’t doubt that their reputation may suffer if the underlying data are placed in the public domain. Perhaps not for the reasons they claim.
Ashton de Silva and I have spent the last few weeks analysing some other data and papers published by researchers at the Victorian Cancer Council and our working paper has been posted at SSRN.
It appears to be common knowledge that the Australian tobacco plain packaging policy has been successful in meeting its stated policy goals. In this paper we investigate the evidence of tobacco plain packaging policy success as published in a 2015 special issue of Tobacco Control that relied on data drawn from the Australian National Plain Packaging Survey. We find that the three key papers demonstrating the efficacy of the plain packaging policy introduced into Australia in 2012 suffer from inconsistencies and methodological differences. The result are not consistent across the three papers and are not robust to small changes in method choice. In particular we find that model fit is invariably poor. We conclude that contrary to the stated claims of the authors of those papers, and the public health lobby in general, that the evidence is not consistent with the stated aims of the plain packaging policy.
From the conclusion:
The facts are as follows: The Australian plain packaging policy has failed to meet its stated objectives. The research project commissioned to establish whether the policy had met its stated objectives fails on a number of criteria including independence, transparency, replication and rigour. We submit that the peer review process failed to adequately examine the rigour of the results and that the government process designed to provide an overview of the entire exercise failed to indicate that there was no credible evidence to suggest that the policy has worked.
As we initially indicated, the failure of a government policy cannot be an academic spat. Increased government control over business, and the assault on intellectual property have real consequences and these consequences should be minimised to those situations that actually and unambiguously deliver a positive benefit.
The fact that the Victorian Cancer Council is refusing to release the underlying data in other federally funded research tells you all you need to know about the rigour and applicability of the studies published from those surveys.