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The tobacco industry has long denied or played down the risks of smoking, addiction, and passive smoking in Australia.1–3 A survey commissioned by Phillip Morris in 1993 indicated that most Australian opinion leaders and the general public have an unfavourable opinion of the company, even less favourable than that of Americans.4 Faced by a rising tide of litigation, the tobacco industry has attempted to change their image over the past decade to one of a “socially responsible” corporate citizen.5
Unlike in the USA, where the tobacco industry have engaged in extensive corporate image advertising and campaigns directed at youth and parents, in Australia, tobacco companies have focused on more subtle approaches. For example, Philip Morris attempted to administer a series of workshops for Australian schoolteachers on how to encourage children to “say no to illicit drugs, underage smoking, drinking alcohol and bullying”.6 British American Tobacco (Australia) uses their website to boast of “substantial donations” to charities such as Lifeline and Mission Australia,7 while in 1999, Philip Morris listed itself in a corporate promotional brochure as sponsoring the Red Nose Day Foundation (supporting research on sudden infant death syndrome).8
During this period of “corporate re-imaging”, the tobacco industry also appeared prominently in the Australian news media. The Rolah McCabe trial in 2002 generated a great deal of press coverage and debate9 about the liability of the tobacco industry for smoking related illnesses and about their conduct in light of the Victorian Supreme Court finding that British American Tobacco had subverted the discovery process by deliberately destroying thousands of documents.10 To gain insight into how adults in the Australian state of Victoria perceive the tobacco industry, data from representative population surveys were analysed.
Telephone interviews with Victorian adults were conducted during November and December 2002 (n = 1995), 2003 (n = 3001), and 2004 (n = 2997). Participants were asked: “In relation to issues about smoking, do you think tobacco companies…always tell the truth; mostly tell the truth; mostly do not tell the truth, or never tell the truth?”.
Table 1 shows that, in 2004, less than 1% of Victorian adults reported they thought that tobacco companies always tell the truth. The majority of adults (79%) reported they thought tobacco companies either never or mostly do not tell the truth in relation to issues about smoking. Smokers (23%) were significantly more likely than former smokers (11%) and never smokers (16%) to believe that tobacco companies always or mostly tell the truth (p < 0.01). However, smokers were quite polarised in their views, with 32% of smokers also reporting that tobacco companies never tell the truth.
The percentage of adults who think tobacco companies mostly do not or never tell the truth has increased in a linear fashion from 2002 (75%) to 2003 (77%) to 2004 (79%) (p < 0.001). This level of distrust is comparable to South Australian adults’ perceptions in 1998, when 80% of respondents and 74% of smokers thought tobacco companies mostly did not or never told the truth about smoking and health, children and smoking, and addictiveness of tobacco.11 Although distrust was high in 2002, findings indicate that the Australian public is becoming increasingly wary of the tobacco industry and remain unmoved by industry attempts to paint themselves as model corporate citizens.