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Smoke Signals: Selected Writings by Simon Chapman
Smoke Signals: Selected Writings

The following is a transcript of a talk given by Melissa Sweet at the launch of Smoke Signals: Selected Writings by Simon Chapman on the 1 December 2016.

I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet; the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I also acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues here tonight.

I would also like to acknowledge the long traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and practices, which become ever-more important with the many public health challenges the world faces.

We are here tonight to honour the work of one of this University’s most prolific and relentless academics, who, despite his considerable intellectual and professional achievements, apparently has a very poor grasp of the meaning of simple concepts – like “retirement”.

In the 20 months since retiring, Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman has published 56 articles and – as well as the book we are here to launch tonight, is also writing a book on wind farm health anxieties as a “communicated” disease, as well as a memoir of life in a country town – Bathurst – in the 1950s and 1960s.

Before launching Simon’s 9th book though, I’d like to pay respects to his family – to Tricia, Joe, Ali and Patrick, and the grandchildren Florence and Jasper.

I also acknowledge his late parents, Margaret and his father Alec, whose end-of-life stories are shared in the book.

What a lovely photo that Trish has taken for the cover – I’m sure many of us will recognise this face. The intent brown eyes, the smile – the big head.

Looking at that photo, there is the sense that anything might come out of his mouth, as well as the sense that while he looks to be engaging intently – he might well have left the room, if not the building, before we’ve quite had a chance to finish our conversation, never mind say farewell.

In wondering what to say tonight, I thought to ask Simon for a few of the key dates in his life and career. I thought I could link these dates into wider world events, as a way of showing how much the world has changed during the course of his career, and how he has often been right in the thick of those changes.

So what are the five dates he offered up? I will read his email verbatim.

1969: Expelled from school for drinking underage in a Mudgee pub while on performance tour of Macbeth throughout central west. Was never caught selling cigarettes to the school boarders.

July 1979 [aged 27]: Gave my first interview to news media – Sydney Morning Herald, on formation of MOP UP (Movement Opposed to Promotion of Unhealthy Products). 18 months later, MOP UP’s advocacy saw Paul Hogan removed from Winfield advertising. Discovered power of media advocacy.

1979: Invited to lunch by the (late) Prof Henry Mayer, legendary professor of political theory at Sydney Uni. For next 10 years, received almost daily stuffed packages of reading material torn from high and low brow magazines & journals. Unforgettable & invaluable hot-housed education.

1983: Undertook my first international tobacco control consultancy (to PNG) with the (late) Dr Nigel Gray head of International Union Against Cancer’s tobacco control program. They introduced advertising ban shortly afterwards. Did many in years following.

2003: Voted by international peers to receive American Cancer Society’s global “outstanding individual leadership” Luther Terry Medal for tobacco control

When you read Smoke Signals – as I’m sure you all will, having bought up all the stock here tonight – you will see that there are so many other dates he could have chosen.

It says a lot that amongst the long list of prestigious national and international awards you will find in his Wikipedia entry – Simon says that being named Australian Skeptic of the Year in 2013 was one of the most cherished awards.

Scepticism and speaking truth to power and dogma are among the threads that link up this collection of articles on disparate topics. They are vintage Chapman – entertaining, quirky, unpredictable, fearless.

He manages a turn of phrase that is by turns endearing, brutal and elegant.

Describing his critiquing of the medicalisation of smoking cessation, he writes: “I dropped an early, very pungent stink bomb on mythology that smokers needed help to quit.”

Similarly evocative, he writes in one article of “the toxic sludge that percolates through talkback radio”.

Not surprisingly, the tobacco industry also receives many pungent bouquets – including that it “has all the ethics of a cash register”.

Simon does not mince words. You tend to know exactly where he stands.

Tim Wilson – whose name crops up more than once – is the high priest of the IPA, “the cathedral of the anti–nanny state” and “Australia’s champion of contemporary pet-dung-heap rights, while the Australian Hotels Association is “myopic, ill-informed and self-interested”.

You will have to read the book to find out what he says about the town of Christchurch!

Describing the lack of public acknowledgement and understanding of the work of public health, he writes: “The paradox of prevention is that it succeeds when nothing happens.”

This book also shows that Simon is very good at the art of lists.

One is “ten key lessons I’ve learned repeatedly throughout my career in public health advocacy”.

Lesson 8. Use social media. A lot.

He says: “The paper I published that has had the most downloads looked at the impact of the post–Port Arthur gun-law reforms on multiple killings and total gun deaths. It has had 120,600 downloads since 1996, with 86,000 in December 2012 after I tweeted the link following the Sandy Hook massacre in the USA.”

His list of 150 ways the nanny state is good for us is to die-for – such a wonderful range, from motor vehicle design standards to poisons labelling and continuing medical education for medical professionals.

In 2012, he began collecting examples of diseases and symptoms being attributed to wind farm exposure. At the time of writing, the list had 247 entries, including herpes, haemorrhoids and “disoriented echidnas”.

Smoke Signals is an invigorating collection of articles, whether you are a general reader or working in the health sector or just curious about the world.

I have known Simon and followed his work for a long time; even so there were many articles in this book that I had missed.

These articles represent a particular era, a time when public health was part of “the good fight” – where the enemies were clearly identified.

As I read it, I wondered whether public health can still claim to be engaged in “the good fight”. It is also something I often wonder about my own field, of journalism and the media industry.

We live in a time of rising inequality, xenophobia and white supremacy, and in a post-truth world where climate deniers are elected to power, where public health reports can be released without even mentioning fossil fuels and climate change, and where human rights abuses have become embedded in everyday practices and policies.

Thank you to Professor Louise Baur in her talk just now for identifying the need for public health to respond in new ways to these interconnected challenges facing us globally.

Simon is one of the world’s fortunate people. Since finding his vocation in public health academia, he has always loved going to work. As he still does, in “retirement”.

“A day without writing is a day wasted,” he says in this book.

But what is a writer without readers?

In declaring Smoke Signals officially launched, I urge you to read it and to engage with the author’s calls to action.

He says: “It is the very worst time to retreat into the unnoticed and inconsequential debates within the walls of academia. Today more than ever, we need far more of you out there promoting quality evidence and hammering rubbish.”


Melissa Sweet is an independent public health journalist and the publisher of Croakey.org, an adjunct senior lecturer in the Sydney School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, and a PhD candidate at the University of Canberra.

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