Swinburn is one of 33 eminent New Zealand public health scientists who wrote to John Key – the Minister of Health – and the Auditor-General in the wake of the publication of Dirty Politics. The scientists were incandescent at Hager’s revelation of the well-oiled machinery used to systematically attack them and their work.
In particular they were calling for immediate action relating to one of Graham’s closest contacts – the former National MP Katherine Rich. Dirty Politics claimed a series of emails showed numerous attacks on public health scientists initiated by Rich as CEO of the Food and Grocery Council – the trade body for tobacco – alcohol – and ‘Big Food’ companies. The emails to Graham appeared to show ‘hits’ being ordered by Rich against opponents of her members. These hits were – according to the book – turned into toxic words by Graham and then published – often unchanged – by Slater on his Whale Oil blog site.
Hager claims the money flowed from Graham’s clients via his company to Slater – allowing Rich to deny she paid for the attacks. Graham’s mystery clients are according to Dirty Politics – also members of the Food and Grocery Council.
But the scientists argued in their letter to the Prime Minister that there was an even more serious aspect to Rich’s attempts to damage public health scientists opposed to sugar – alcohol and tobacco. She also sits on the board of the government’s Health Promotion Agency – which decides how New Zealanders should make decisions about leading a healthy life. For these scientists ‘conflict of interest’ was too mild a term. This was outrageous.
‘We shouldn’t have been surprised’ says Swinburn. ‘Those of us who have worked with Big Tobacco and Big Food overseas know how dirty they play – but what was helpful with this book is it specifically articulated how this happened. That’s been quite revealing and it’s a bit of a shame. I’d have hoped we were more civilised than that. But it’s not a total surprise because we’re working from the book the tobacco industry first wrote – how to make money and prevent healthier societies.
‘We [scientists and public health advocates] don’t have the tools to play dirty; we can only keep putting these issues to the New Zealand public and government’.
So far putting those issues to government at least – seems to have fallen on deaf ears. There’s been no substantial reply to the letter sent to Key – and Rich remains on the board of the Health Promotion Agency. In addition the damage done to many of our public health scientists by the Carrick Graham/Whale Oil attacks seems to be serious and potentially long lasting.