News & Comment

University fights to prevent tobacco company having access to "confidential" data

Sat 3rd September, 2011

A Scottish university involved in tobacco control studies is refusing to release data to a leading tobacco company despite a ruling by Scotland’s freedom of information watchdog.

Philip Morris International, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, wants to obtain research conducted by Stirling University on the attitudes of teenagers towards smoking and the marketing of tobacco.

The company says its interest in the data is "legitimate" but academics at the university claim that releasing the information would be a gross breach of confidence, which could put future studies at risk.

PMI asked the university to hand over everything it held on the project, including notes of meetings and phone calls about it, the terms of reference, research methods, information on the “design and purpose” of the study, any draft reports, and all the data collected. The University said the request was “vexatious” and refused to comply.

However PMI appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, who issued a ruling on the case in July. In it, he reported that Stirling felt the PMI request was “designed to cause disruption” and divert staff from their work.

He also reported evidence from Stirling about the tobacco industry using FoI law round the world against health professionals, and its belief that the effect of the PMI request was “the harassment of the university and researchers within the CTCR’s team”.

PMI in turn had argued it had a “genuine and pressing need” to see the data because the UK government had also floated a move to plain packaging, which would have major implications for PMI.  

Dunion ruled that PMI’s request was a significant burden but not manifestly unreasonable. He also ruled there was also no evidence, in terms of FoI law, to justify claims of attempted disruption or harassment. In conclusion, he said the PMI request was not vexatious and the university had failed in its FoI duty to provide advice and assistance. Dunion ruled in PMI’s favour and ordered the university to change its stance.

Responding to the ruling, Professor Gerard Hastings, director of Stirling University's Institute for Social Marketing, said it would be catastrophic if PMI was to get hold of the data.

He said: "I don't think that's an outcome I would like to contemplate. It is morally repugnant to give data confidentially shared with us by children to an industry that is so rapacious."

According to an "exclusive" report in the Independent:

The demands from the tobacco company, made using the UK's Freedom of Information law, have coincided with an internet hate campaign targeted at university researchers involved in smoking studies.

One of the academics has received anonymous abusive phone calls at her home at night. She believes they are prompted by an organised campaign by the tobacco industry to discredit her work, although there is no evidence that the cigarette companies are directly responsible.

The paper also claimed that:

University researchers have been sent hate emails and some have even received anonymous phone calls, which usually come after a series of blogs posted on pro-smoking websites, including at least one which is linked to the tobacco industry.

Linda Bauld, professor of socio-management at Stirling University's Institute for Social Marketing, says she was unprepared for the scale of the personal attacks aimed at discrediting her work on smoking behaviour and anti-smoking legislation.

Stirling University is one of nine institutions that make up the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies. It receives funding from the Department of Health and its studies have been used in the past to support anti-smoking legislation.

Sources: Press AssociationIndependent (1 September 2011), 
Sunday Herald (17 July 2011)

Simon Clark, director of Forest, comments on his Taking Liberties blog:
Independent? You're having a laugh! (2 September 2011)

See also: Letter to Linda (Frank Davis, 3 September 2011),
Freedom of information is for businesses too (Heather Brooke, 1 September 2011)

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