Cancer Council Victoria welcomes VCAT FOI ruling on sensitive data

Tuesday 27 September, 2016

Cancer Council Victoria has welcomed a Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) ruling that British American Tobacco will not be granted access to data files containing information provided by thousands of Australian school children.

"We are delighted that VCAT has ruled in our favour, and that British American Tobacco will not be allowed to access the data of children from the Australian Secondary Schools Alcohol and Drugs Survey (ASSAD)," said Cancer Council Victoria CEO Todd Harper.

The finding comes after an application to access data was made on behalf of British American Tobacco last year, which Cancer Council Victoria opposed. VCAT has ruled that five of six documents sought by British American Tobacco (BAT) should not be released to the cigarette company.

The children's data in question is from the Australian Secondary Students' Alcohol and Drug Survey which is undertaken by Cancer Council Victoria.

"The ASSAD survey is an important piece of scientific public health research that is subject to stringent approval processes from ethics committees, education authorities and schools," Mr Harper said.

"Handing over such sensitive data would be a breach of trust, and would have jeopardised Cancer Council's ability to continue surveying students in future years, potentially ending our ability to understand smoking behaviour in Australian adolescents.

Mr Harper said the decision vindicated the Cancer Council Victoria's decision to vigorously defend against the attempts of BAT to access this information. It also supports the position of eminent researchers to protect the integrity of data they have collected for scientific purposes.

Mr Harper said smoking is a leading cause of preventable death in Australia, killing 14,000 people each year. About 80 per cent of smokers start before the age of 18.

Mr Harper said that the Cancer Council would consider the Judge's ruling before commenting on the decision regarding the sixth document in question, which the Judge said was not exempt from FOI laws.

Key findings:

296 I accept the evidence of Professor Wakefield, Associate Professor White, Mr Harper, Professor Fox and Dr Timms that the disclosure of Document 1 is likely to impair the ability of the Council to obtain similar information in the future. The release of the confidential information contained in Document 1 is virtually certain to attract protest and expression of strong concern on the part of educational authorities, schools, parents and school children alike. There are likely to be complaints of unethical behaviour, that participating schools and students were misled, that the HREC approval was seriously breached, and that the undertakings given to educational authorities and schools have not been honoured. It is reasonable to expect serious complaint and public concern that information permitted by schools and parents to be obtained from schools students to inform research, curtail cigarette smoking and to restrain the consumption of cigarettes and other drugs could now be used for the reverse purpose, to assist in the promotion and sale of cigarettes.

297 In my view, if the information contained in Document 1 is released, it is highly likely that the credibility of the ASSAD survey will be very seriously undermined. It is also highly likely that approvals would not be forthcoming from many schools and educational authorities which have given their approval in the past. If the reputation of the ASSAD survey is impugned, future survey approval and support will be very difficult to obtain. It is likely that authorities, schools, and in many cases, parents and students, would be taken aback, if not aghast, at the possible use of the information to promote smoking, or market cigarettes to school students.

298 For the reasons given, I am satisfied that the disclosure of the information contained in Document 1 would be contrary to the public interest, by reason that the disclosure would be reasonably likely to impair the ability of the Council to obtain similar information in the future.


Document 1 contains data which comprises the working data file of research from the 2011 and 2013 collections phases of the Australian Secondary Student Alcohol and Drug Survey (ASSAD Survey), plus computed and recoded variables developed from existing variables for data analysis purposes.

HREC is Human Research Ethics Committee