John Dollisson, CEO of Tobacco Institute of Australia 1983-87, then with Philip Morris International

I’ve often been asked by journalists, interviewers and friends what it was about tobacco control that kept me engaged and interested in it across the 45 years I’ve been active in research and advocacy for policies capable of driving down smoking and the diseases it causes. Some are probing to see if there was some road to Damascus epiphany I had early in life. The early death of a heavy smoking parent? No. Or perhaps some religious or neo-puritan calling to deny people the so-called pleasures of smoking? Hardly, I’m a very long term atheist, love wine and good whiskey, and like most people of my age, used cannabis for about half my 20s.

Some are keen to steer the conversation to what it is about working in tobacco control that “drives” me. I often wonder if people working in clinical medicine are ever asked the same question (“why have you kept working for so long as a kidney surgeon?”; “You’ve been a cardiologist for so many years, what is it that keeps you at it?”)

The answer to such questions from clinicians is self-evident. People with diseases and injuries that might be cured or alleviated are very keen to come into the orbit of specialists who can help them and are profoundly grateful when they succeed. Clinicians try to help people who want to be helped, so they are seldom asked to account for why they do what they do, unless they have somehow been exposed as behaving unethically or ineptly.

There is some common ground here with smoking. Some 90% of smokers regret ever starting; most smokers want and try to stop, sometimes often; and I’ve never met any parent who wanted their kids to smoke. “Prevention is better than cure” is regarded as a truism because prevention saves suffering from ever occurring. Everyone who has never been seriously injured in a car crash would rather this had never happened than endure surgery and rehabilitation after being injured.  Successful clinical interventions save lives one at a time while successful global public health policy can save millions of lives at a time.

Tobacco control is a multi-disciplinary pursuit. My colleagues over the years have been clinicians, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, social scientists like psychologists, economists and political scientists, pharmacologists, lawyers, mass communication specialists, agronomists, historians, investigative journalists and politicians. This has made it endlessly fine-grained and fascinating work.

But most working in it will readily agree about a factor that turns the temperature right up in motivating public health advocacy for the policies and mass reach campaigns that drive smoking down. The pinguid, dissembling types who do Big Tobacco and (today) Big Vape’s bidding. For over 70 years, the tobacco industry has been represented  by people whose goal has been to use every possible roadblock to tobacco control policies which seriously threatened tobacco sales.

Thankfully in Australia and many other countries, they have lost every single battle they ever fought.

Today, in déjà vu, we see vaping advocates currently in overdrive to cement the narrative that the health risks of ecigarettes are as benign as breathing steam in the shower and the dramatic rise of school vaping is simply a fad like hula hoops and yoyos that we should all relax about, as a leading vape promoter told the Daily Telegraph in 2021. With 13 year olds calling the Quitline for help with their vaping addiction, I may have missed it but I don’t recall yoyo or hula hoop helplines across the country.

Similarly and infamously, Big Tobacco publicly denied for decades that smoking was harmful, that nicotine was addictive and that children were in their marketing and promotional cross-hairs as essential to their present and future customer base.

In 2001, I was awarded a four year US National Cancer Institute grant and another from the National Health and Medical Research Council to sift through many millions of pages of internal tobacco industry documents made public through the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between 46 US state governments and the tobacco industry. My research group published 38 papers from these grants, 16 here, 13 here and another 9 linked in my CV between 2001-2005 here.

The documents acted like violently emetic truth serum to the tobacco industry. Its galactic public lies across every conceivable tobacco policy area instantly stopped with the revelations about what they had long known to be the truth, now available for anyone to wave in their faces via their very own internal documents. The only one that persists today is their collective hand-on-heart denial that they slaver over the teen nicotine addiction  market, this being the sine qua non of both the smoking and vaping business models.

I’ve often been asked to nominate the very worst examples of this conduct. This recording of a debate I had with John Dollisson in 1984 on (now ABC chair) Ita Buttrose’s Sydney morning radio program on 2UE is very hard to beat. Dollisson was the Sydney-based head of and main spokesman for the fully tobacco industry funded Tobacco Institute of Australia (TIA) from 1983-87. This 2003 paper by one of my colleagues (now) Professor Stacy Carter, describes the history and activities of the TIA. Dollisson was heavily involved in trying to stop the advance of smokefree indoor areas and bans on tobacco advertising. But his bread and butter was attacking claims about smoking risks.

The full transcript of the 2UE conversation is below. The most disturbing part came when a smoker with lung cancer called in and said she believed her cancer was caused by “stress” as she was a highly nervous person, and that if she stopped smoking, she might die sooner. Dollisson told her it was “good to see you have taken an objective assessment” of her situation and that if other factors like genetics, stress, and indoor and outdoor pollution were taken into account, smoking’s role “was virtually removed”. Buttrose’s popular mid morning program would have been heard by tens of thousands of listeners.

Listen to their conversation here.

This figuratively and literally sickening excerpt from an ABC “Pressure Point” TV program also from 1984,  shows Dollisson and Philip Morris’ Bill Webb both faithful to the Big Tobacco script of the day. For those with the stomach, here’s the full 25 minute program.

Dollisson seems to have long moved on from tobacco. Here is his Linked In page which includes his post TIA 4 year stint with Philip Morris and their “Vice President, Corporate Affairs, World Wide”.

To my knowledge, Dollisson has never made any public statement showing any regret about his tobacco industry years. Industry employees often sign non-disclosure agreements. If he’s reading this, I’d be happy to give him space to do so.