Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Fighting Lobbyists with Science

By Stephen Luntz

Simon Chapman has fought the tobacco industry, gun lobby and even opponents of wind farms and swimming pool fences.

For decades Prof Simon Chapman has taken on powerful industries and lobby groups in a quest to make life safer and longer for all.

“When I started, tobacco advertising wallpapered the country,” he says. “It was in every medium. Today it is nowhere except the internet.” Chapman is quick to note that no single person can claim credit for the legislative changes along the way, ascribing progress to “a close-knit team of researchers here and overseas”. Nevertheless, he is particularly proud of his contribution to mandatory plain packaging legislation.

Chapman’s undergraduate degree at the University of NSW was in sociology but his Honours thesis, on advertising directed at doctors by pharmaceutical companies, coincided with a Senate inquiry. When Senator Peter Baume read Chapman’s thesis into Hansard, Chapman says: “It was then I realised research could be more than something that is read by your examiners.”

For his PhD Chapman moved to Sydney University, where he is now Professor of Public Health. In the intervening years he has been the author of almost 300 papers in peer-reviewed journals and written 17 books and major reports. For 9 years he was the editor of Tobacco Control, a specialist publication of the British Medical Journal.

Meanwhile Australian smoking rates have more than halved. Chapman’s influence is demonstrated by British American Tobacco’s decision to buy 100 copies of his latest book so employees could know their enemy. “So I guess I’m making money off them,” he laughs.

Chapman says that tobacco companies at least preserve “a veneer of respectability. They act as if part of ordinary commerce, so while there is plenty of evidence internationally of companies engaged in smuggling and racketeering, I’ve never had personal experience of threats or attacks.”

The same cannot be said when Chapman ventures into other fields. Having conducted studies on the effectiveness of gun control, Chapman helped introduce gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. “In the 10 years prior to the laws we had 14 gun massacres,” Chapman notes, defining massacres as involving five or more deaths. “In the years since we have had none.”

His role led to many abusive messages, one of which he considered a serious death threat that he reported to the police. The person was tracked down and found to be mentally unstable. Chapman notes, however, that “for every abusive message I get several congratulating me”.

Most recently Chapman has been exploring how opponents of wind farms arouse fears in communities near where turbines are to be installed. While presenting themselves as grassroots activists, the opponents are often receiving substantial indirect support from the coal (and in some countries nuclear) industry.

Papers published in obscure journals have claimed to find evidence of “wind turbine syndrome” but Chapman has systematically demolished the methodology for the supposed studies. “People call me up and say, ‘Bet you wouldn’t have one in your backyard’. I tell them I live right under the flight path to Sydney Airport and also near a railway line and busy road. A triple whammy, and it doesn’t bother me in the least.”

Other opponents have been the anti-vaccination lobby and people who resented having to place fences around backyard swimming pools.

Chapman also maintains a project called Australian Health News, with 30,000 health-related stories. “I took all the articles from the Sydney Morning Herald over a 2-year period that mentioned ‘cancer’ and ‘breakthrough’ or ‘promising’. Ten years later I went to experts in the field and said: ‘Looking back, would you think that this language was justified?’ In at least 50% of cases they said no.”

Yet Chapman says his own experiences with the media have been positive, with his message seldom distorted. “Like all academics I aspire to get published in The Lancet etc. I’ve had a share of those over the years. I feel pleased when published, but the day after no one knows. The work might be cited 60 times. If I go on breakfast radio half the staff will have heard, there’ll be emails waiting, further requests for interviews, sometimes politicians wanting to know more about what I’ve done.”

In between, Chapman finds time to publish more unusual research, such as evidence that Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer caused a surge in the number of women having screenings. He estimated that this led to roughly 100 early detections, many of them likely to be life-saving (AS, September 2005, p.12).

He is also the lead singer in a covers band named The Original Faux Pas, which is made up largely of medical academics. They play largely for charity.