‘If you want to change the world,answer your phone’:Simon Chapman on public advocacy

Columnist and author

Simon Chapman is emeritus professor in public health at the University of Sydney and a long-time advocate of gun control,stronger anti-smoking laws and the virtues of renewable energy. Today,his new bookQuit Smoking Weapons of Mass Distraction, looking at the forces trying to “medicalise” quitting tobacco,is published.

‘I had an appalling academic record’:Professor Simon Chapman.

‘I had an appalling academic record’:Professor Simon Chapman.James Brickwood

Fitz:We’ll get to your book in due course,Professor,but first up,where did you come from,the first steps you took to achieve your pre-eminence?

Simon Chapman:I grew up in Bathurst and went to All Saints College,populated by the sons of graziers,while I was the son of British migrants who were hairdressers in the town. I mostly enjoyed it but I was a mediocre,very distracted student. Still,I wasn’t a bad bowler and actually bowled the great West Indian Wes Hall in a coaching clinic that,ironically,had been brought to Bathurst by the Rothmans Sports Foundation.

Fitz:Got him,yes! Middle stump! Given your current stance,and your passion for it,am I to understand that never once with your mates – perhaps on the very night you bowled Wes Hall – have you known the pleasure of having a few drinks on board,and sucking deep on a cigarette?

SC:To the contrary.[As a young man] I actually had a lot of contempt for authority and rules. I was the kind of student who smoked and carried condoms. That was who I saw myself as being in those days. And even when I did my undergraduate degree in the early ′70s,majoring in sociology,I had an appalling academic record. It was only after completing that and going on the classic London to Sydney via Kabul overland trip,and coming back to Sydney Uni to do my PhD in preventative social medicine that I truly hit my stride – and I’ve had a pretty high-flying academic career ever since.

Fitz:And the breakthrough?

SC:I had been supervised in my PhD by Professor Henry Mayer,who was professor of political theory at Sydney University. After reading something I wrote,he asked me to lunch and mentored me for a number of years. He taught me that if you had something to say,one of the most important things to do was not just to natter among your colleagues but to say it publicly. So,I started writing opinion articles and letters to newspapers,and I suppose the biggest thing that happened to me early was that I helped found a public interest group called MOP UP – Movement Opposed to Promotion of Unhealthy Products. (By this time,having first got a job in the NSW Health Department,I thought continuing to smoke while in this role is hypocritical,so I had stopped.)

Fitz:And what sort of things did MOP UP do?

SC:Our biggest success was protesting to the advertising self-regulators about Paul Hogan being in Winfield ads because we argued he demonstrably had immense appeal to children,which was against their regulations. And to our great surprise and delight,Sir Richard Kirby – who adjudicated the case – came down on our side and Paul Hogan was kicked off the ads!

Fitz:And the next breakthrough?

SC:We were holding a public meeting of MOP UP in the city morgue’s lecture theatre on Parramatta Road and I was up there earnestly talking about how people in public health ought to be taking action against purveyors of unhealthy habits,like tobacco and alcohol advertising,and some people stood up and said,“Look,this is all very well,but we should all be taking more direct action. We’ve been out there graffitiing billboards.” They decided if we were called MOP UP,they’d call themselves BUGA-UP (Billboard Utilising Graffiti Against Unhealthy Promotion). That group of people absolutely changed the entire complexion of tobacco control. BUGA-UP basically politicised the whole thing and got people thinking about commercial forces that set personal agendas. They dramatically changed the narrative about smoking.

Fitz:Are you,a respected emeritus professor,acknowledging to me that you’ve been a part of an organisation illegally damaging billboards?

SC:Well,I think I only defaced less than 10 billboards in my life but one with us was a member of parliament. Others are now respected doctors,surgeons and so forth. Oscar Wilde said “Disobedience,in the eyes of anyone who has read history,is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made,through disobedience and through rebellion.”

Chapman was once named by the Institute of Public Affairs as one of Australia’s “greatest opponents of freedom”.

Chapman was once named by the Institute of Public Affairs as one of Australia’s “greatest opponents of freedom”.Supplied

Fitz:Would it be fair to say that one of the highlights of your career was being named by the Institute of Public Affairs as among the “dirty dozen” of the “greatest opponents of freedom” in Australian history?

SC:It was a special day! I nearly fell off the chair laughing. Ivan Milat wasn’t on the list,nor Joh Bjelke-Petersen – and they really did deprive people of their freedom – but I was on their list with some amazing people,like “Nugget” Coombs,Billy Hughes and Nicola Roxon,who’d introduced plain packaging. The fact that the IPA had so named me was such a badge of honour that I proudly put it on my CV.

Fitz:You’ve also had great successes in gun control,in defending wind farms and WiFi from technophobes. What’s the number one principle in successful public advocacy?

SC:One of my professors said to me one day:“The first rule of politics Simon,is tobe there.” And I think it was Mae West who said that “It’s better to be looked over than overlooked.” And I’ve always thought that was a good guiding principle that universities are full of people who mostly talk to themselves in the tearoom and in conferences attended by small numbers of people. But when you get an opportunity to speak to morning breakfast shows,for example,you can be speaking to half a million people!

Fitz:Love it. That is such a good principle,I can’t resist asking what’s the second principle?

SC:Answer the phone. I got to know Adam Spencer while on the Sydney University Senate with you,and he used to often ring me up to have me on his morning radio program,commenting on various things. And I said to him one day,“Why do you call me up all the time?” And he looked at me as if I was stupid and said,“Because you answer your bloody phone.” He said,you’d be amazed at the number of people who get an opportunity to put their story to vast numbers of people and who don’t take it! If you want to change the world,answer your phone,take the opportunities that come your way,get your message out.

Fitz:And so to the book. It seems to me that the essence of your manuscript is the reverse of Nike’s famous line “just do it”. Basically,you’re saying that the best way to kick addictions is – ditch all the commercial mumbo jumbo,the 10-point plans,the patches and instead,“Just don’t do it.”

SC:Well,yeah. There are penny-drop moments that you have in life. I’d go to research conferences – where all kinds of things like nicotine replacement therapy,various prescribed drugs,counselling,hypnotherapy and so forth were discussed. But when you asked for a show of hands,the truth was about 75 per cent of ex-smokers quit without any professional or pharmacological help at all. And so the core theme of the book is that we should respect far more how most ex-smokers actually quit:cold turkey. Hundreds of millions of them.

Fitz:I was a Saturday night smoker,sometimes stretching into Tuesday and occasionally stretching to October. But what made me quit was walking the Kokoda track and realising for the first time in my life,there will be a day when I die. And I think it’s going to come sooner if I don’t stop smoking. Do you find that people have seminal sort of experiences like that which say I’ve got to stop smoking?

SC:People do have those moments,which could be a conversation with a doctor or a plea from a child,or a difficult physical experience like yours. But I think that what’s far more important is to consider that the whole narrative about smoking for many,many years has been a negative one. We know that 90 per cent of people who smoke regret ever starting it. I don’t think that there is any product at all,where the consumer base is so profoundly disloyal to the product that they consume all the time. People reach these understandings by being drip-fed the science across years.

Fitz:And yet,people really do struggle to give it up,and there is now a billion-dollar industry in having people get patches or drugs to give it up. Is that just a commerce built on bulls---?

SC:Well,there’s obviously a business model which involves denigrating people doing it on their own because they won’t sell any product to such people. They want you to use their product. And they want you to keep using it for as long as possible. And then if you don’t succeed with that product,they say,“Hey,we’ve got a new version of it now. Not only have we got a gum,we’ve now got a patch,we’ve got an inhaler,we’ve got a lozenge.” Next they’ll have nicotine suppositories!

Fitz:Do none of them work?

SC:Well,when Shane Warne was caught smoking cigarettes after being given $200,000 by a nicotine gum manufacturer. I was asked to comment at the time and said,“Look,he’s a world-class bowler,but he’s a very ordinary smoker.” Even with $200K on the line,he wasn’t ready to do it.

Fitz:Some advice for those who try to go cold turkey and fail? My advice for what it’s worth,and it took me a long time to work it out with both smoking and grog is that “abstinence is easier than moderation. Get that through your melon!”

SC:That works. But when it doesn’t work,my advice is this:“Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t dwell on failures and relapses. Think of those as rehearsals for success.”

Fitz:Good! And finally,if you had to get the distilled essence of what your book is about,and write it on your thumbnail,what is it?

SC:It’s about the unnecessary medicalisation of life. Commercial medicine and Big Pharma love redefining very ordinary everyday things – traits,habits and moods as illnesses which need to be medicated for a long,long time. And everywhere you look around you,people are unnecessarily being encouraged to be medicated. It’s not a healthy thing to surrender your own agency and think that you can’t change yourself that instead you ought to define yourself as a sick person who needs to be medicated. Stand back from the hype and ask every ex-smoker you know how they quit. You’ll be amazed. The short answer will likely be,they did it themselves,and it involved a very big slice of cold turkey.

Quote of the week

“I’m still unaware of what the substantive issue here is.” Dominic Perrottet on what the big deal is about the appointment of former Nationals leader John Barilaro to a $500,000-a-year trade role in New York – a position that Barilaro created when he was trade minister? The growing scandal is bringing back reminiscences of the Nick Greiner/ Terry Metherell imbroglio.

What they said

“Even a discussion of workplace culture has to dance a delicate dance . . . if the issue is the treatment of an allegation,it’s very difficult to have that debate without commenting on appropriate treatment on the assumed premise that the allegation is true.” Justice Lucy McCallum,as part of her deliberations in the delaying of the Brittany Higgins alleged rape trial. And yes,thank you,I know.

“Atlassian employees choose every day where and how they want to work – we call it Team Anywhere. This has been key for our continued growth. Why? This is the future of how we will work. Highly distributed,highly flexible ... There is great talent all over the world – not just within a one-hour radius of our offices.” Scott Farquhar,Atlassian co-founder.

“I no longer live with or wish to be related to my biological father in any way,shape or form.” Elon Musk’s daughter petitioning the California courts for both a name change and a new birth certificate,changing from male to female.

“She does not want to be a public figure. I think it is important to defend her right to privacy. Please don’t out someone against their will – it’s not right.” Elon Musk asking media to leave his daughter alone.

“It doesn’t make any sense to turn[the house] into another museum. It would be almost impossible to run it as a museum,having knowledge of what it costs to do this kind of thing. This house needs a family again. It would be lovely to think of a creative family but it would be enough if they loved it,and lived in it.”

Wendy Whiteley has bequeathed more than $100 million worth of Brett Whiteley artworks to the Art Gallery Of NSW.

Wendy Whiteley has bequeathed more than $100 million worth of Brett Whiteley artworks to the Art Gallery Of NSW.Edwina Pickles

Wendy Whitely,now 81,about plans for the future. The heritage-listed home where she has lived since 1969 will not,however,be preserved in public ownership. Upon her death,it will be sold,with the proceeds placed in trust to secure the future of the collection and the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills,dedicated to showcasing the artist’s practice and oeuvre. Her collection of Brett Whiteley artworks will be donated to the Art Gallery of NSW in an “extraordinary” cultural gift to the state of NSW. The promised bequest is worth more than $100 million.

“We are left with no alternative but to demonstrate in this unprecedented manner the anger that is felt by the profession right across the state.”Teachers Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos as the state’s public school and Catholic school teachers got ready to stage an historic joint 24-hour strike. Gavrielatos said the NSW budget failed to address crippling workloads,and acting on uncompetitive salaries and unsustainable workloads was the only way to stop more teachers leaving and to attract people into the profession.

“Exercise training remains the most potent ‘medicine’ that preserves quality of life and expands health span.” US researchers at the University of Virginia,who recently published a review of research into exercise and health span.

“Today my birthday,I wake in Australia,with the ocean,and it’s like dream for us.” Ukrainian performer Liza,after arriving in Australia with two fellow performers in time for her 25th birthday.

“The reality is there isn’t a town in rural NSW that isn’t at risk of being able to sustain viable primary care right now. For every general practitioner that leaves the workforce,there will need to be three to replace them to keep up with demand. After COVID-19,floods and bushfires,GPs have never felt a time when the system is in such a perilous state. They are exhausted.” Richard Colbran,chief executive of the NSW Rural Doctors Network,after dozens of towns across the state were shown to be at risk of not having a single GP available in coming years. Experts warn that the exodus of hundreds of doctors from the workforce has left the system in a “perilous state”.

“I’ve got six months off,long-service leave. And I’ve been saying to my bosses I need a rest,I need a break because it’s so demanding to do7.30 every day and I don’t have any bandwidth left to be creative and come up with fresh ideas for totally different projects. So,I just need to go away,get some gas in the tank,and have a reset.” Leigh Sales getting on with life.

“It was such a hard-right-wing,racist society that I grew up in. I’ve come a long way.” Prolific American author John Grisham,on growing up in America’s deep south.

Joke of the week

A courier up Coffs Harbour way has just been sent to deliver a package to a place he’s never been to before,on the western side of the town. He arrives at the address and sees a big sign marked “Beware of the parrot!” nailed to a tree. Looking down the garden path,he spies,sure enough,a parrot sitting on its perch. With a little chuckle to himself,and without a worry in the world,he opens the gate and walks into the garden. He gets as far as the parrot’s perch,when suddenly it calls out,“Brutus,attack!”


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Peter FitzSimons is a journalist and columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald.

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