Cancer prevention pioneer recognised

Dorothy Reading "We started off with the Melbourne Hospital to get them to be smoke free. We moved on to the Children's Hospital, they picked it up quite readily, but the smoking areas were all in the foyers and you had to walk through a pall of smoke to get in."

For many, it's incomprehensible to imagine that smoking was once commonplace in the wards at the Royal Children's Hospital.

However when Dorothy Reading joined Cancer Council Victoria's Quit in 1986, smoking was prolific and around 32 percent of Australians were addicted.

"There was smoke everywhere," Reading said. "We had the information that tobacco caused cancer but it wasn't widely known, wasn't widely accepted and was hotly contested by the tobacco industry."

As one of Cancer Council's master strategists, Dorothy Reading spent over 25 years in cancer prevention, mostly behind the scenes, influencing public opinion, motivating Victorian legislative and policy reform and standing up to the tobacco industry.

Thanks to the work of a dedicated team at Cancer Council, today Victoria is a very different place. Smoking rates in adults have more than halved and are at a record low 12.6 percent. Reading's dedication and commitment were honoured in January when she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia.

Yet despite her long list of achievements, she still felt trepidation when hearing of the award. "I've never really been the front person," she said. "It's not that I'm particularly uncomfortable about that but I never felt that I was the expert, but more the campaign organiser."

Reading names being involved in the Victorian Tobacco Act (1987), which introduced a levy on the wholesale sale of tobacco products and the formation of Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth), as one of the most rewarding of her career.

"It provided a funding source that pretty much made everything else possible," she said.

It was during the creation of the Act that she was introduced to the aggressive tactics of the powerful tobacco industry with its global network and deep pockets.

"Public debates with the tobacco industry were vicious. We knew that we had to keep the draft Act a secret for as long as we could. To our surprise we did actually manage to keep it a secret until the legislation was announced - so all the work had been done.

"They went berserk and developed some advertising campaigns which depicted the tobacco control people basically as fascists. There were some very heated confrontations on evening news and attempts to influence MPs who were going to vote on this."

The public campaign about the risks of smoking was hard fought by Cancer Council over many years.

"After hospitals, the next group who were really interested and supportive were teachers. We then worked to get smoke free restaurants, but there was a big backlash as they thought they'd lose customers. Then we tackled pubs and clubs and that was a disaster.

"Then data emerged about passive smoking being a health risk. It made a huge difference for non-smokers to have a legitimate reason to complain. That's when it made the work on pubs and clubs more successful. We were on a roll, people wanted to do it."

In addition to Quit, Reading was involved in establishing BreastScreen Victoria, PapScreen Victoria and SunSmart, which are household names today and continue to save thousands of lives.


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Updated: 05 Apr, 2017