Chapman, Simon Fenton

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PhD 1984 BA (UNSW) MA (UNSW)

Simon Chapman is a world renowned leader in research into the tobacco industry and the effects of cigarette advertising. His work has been integral to the decline in smoking, the manner in which cigarettes are advertised and substantial health policy changes around cigarette advertising and consumption in Australia.

After completing his Bachelor of Arts (majoring in sociology and psychology) at the University of New South Wales in 1972, Simon began his public health career as a Health Education Officer for the Drug Education Unit. He commenced his master’s in 1977 and produced his first thesis Advertising and psychotropic drugs – the place of myth in ideological reproduction. His findings were published variously and stirred national political interest being printed in full in Federal Parliamentary Hansard in proceedings of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare’s Report on the use and abuse of medication available over the counter or on prescription. His thesis examined the way imagery in pharmaceutical advertising reproduced stereotypes about patients and doctors.

He served his early apprenticeship as an academic medical educator, tutoring first year students in Clinical Studies at the University of NSW and introducing them to the emerging field of medical sociology which was in its infancy. From 1978 to 1981 he was employed by the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at the University of Sydney as lecturer in the Master of Public Health course.

At the heart of all Simon’s work, scholarly or otherwise, is an inherent premise of intelligent social activism. In the late 1970s, with a few colleagues, he led the establishment of MOP UP (Movement opposed to the Promotion of Unhealthy Products). He says of this time:

[D]rug pushers were very publicly jailed while tobacco industry executives were quietly knighted… We engineered the removal of Paul Hogan from the Winfield advertising campaign [and] re-energised the debate about tobacco advertising that Nigel Gray (then head of the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria) and Cotter Harvey (founder of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health) had started in the 1960s.

At the first meeting of MOP UP, the group was challenged for the inadequacy of their letter-writing campaigns resulting in heated discussion which led to the formation of BUGA UP (Billboard Graffiti Against Unhealthy Products). Although recognising the activities of BUGA UP as “over a decade of civil disobedience”, Simon credits the organisation for changing public attitude toward and perception of the tobacco industry in Australia. To quote Simon again:

[U]nderstanding that the tobacco industry is a pariah of the corporate world rapidly became a litmus test for a whole set of values about the abhorrence of putting profit above all else. Today, one never hears a tobacco industry executive in the media… No respectable politician would now ever risk public association with these executives, and this change in business community status has facilitated the incremental adoption of a legislative program that puts Australia in the forefront of nations trying to reduce tobacco’s health toll.[1]

In 1981, Simon returned to government pubic health service. For the next three years his work remained focussed on research into the effects of smoking and policy surrounding cigarette advertising and consumption; firstly as the co-ordinator of the Anti Smoking Project Group for the Health Commission of NSW, and then conducting research for the NSW Department of Health Quit For Life Project.

During this time, he completed his PhD in the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at the University of Sydney entitled Cigarette advertising as myth: a re-evaluation of the relationship of advertising to smoking.[1]

In 1984, as a NHMRC Research Fellow, he travelled to the United Kingdom and Malaysia investigating the natural history of smoking cessation and consulting to the International Organisation of Consumers Unions worldwide campaign “AGHAST” (Action Groups to Halt Advertising and Sponsorship by Tobacco). He returned to Australia a year later to become Director of the Health Promotion Branch of the Public Health Service for the South Australian Health Commission, later consulting the Australian Health Ministers Advisory Council on their Health Targets and Implementation Committee.

Since 1988 he has risen from Lecturer to Professor of Public Health within our Faculty. His research interests remain tobacco control, media discourse on health and illness and risk communication. He teaches annual courses in Public Health Advocacy and Tobacco Control in the Master of Public Health Program.

A world recognised expert in issues surrounding tobacco control, Simon’s expertise is sought internationally by government health organisations. From 1984 to 2002 he was a member of the World Health Organization’s Expert Advisory Panel on Tobacco and Health. He has served as an active member and consultant to many Australian government agencies and associations and is at present Co-chair of the NSW Population Health Priority Task Force, a member of the NSW Health Care Advisory Council and on the board of the Cancer Council NSW.

In 1996, following the Port Arthur Massacre, Simon was a leading member of the Coalition For Gun Control. For their social advocacy, the group were awarded the 1996 Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s community Human Rights Award.

Although the author of 11 books and major government reports and over 200 papers in peer-reviewed journals, he feels that some of his most influential of his writing is in his 120 newspaper opinion pieces, his innumerable letters to newspapers, and in his radio and television interviews produced “during critical periods of advocacy for change”. Of his media advocacy, he says “I have tried to translate epidemiologists’ conclusions into discourses that gel with community concerns.”[1]

Simon has been the recipient of international acclaim and award. In 1997 he won the World Health Organization’s ‘World No Tobacco Day Medal’ and the National Heart Foundation President’s Gold Medal in 1999. In 2003, his international peers nominated him to receive the American Cancer Society’s Terry Luther medal for outstanding global individual leadership in tobacco control. In 2005, Professor Simon’s NHMRC project (analysing over 40 million pages of previously internal tobacco industry documents) was acknowledged by the Health Minister as one of the 10 outstanding projects funded in recent years by the NHMRC.

As Simon states, “[a]long with vaccine uptake, the fall in the road toll and arresting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the fall in the smoking rate is one of the major public health achievements of the past 40 years.”

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Chapman, Simon Fenton. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.