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Thursday, 26 November 2015

Philip Morris seeks raw results from teen smoking study

UK— Tobacco giant Philip Morris International is using freedom of information laws to try to get hold of primary data and researchers’ notes from academic studies on smoking among teenagers.

The data comes from longitudinal studies conducted by the University of Stirling’s Centre for Tobacco Control Research into the effects on teenagers of how cigarettes are packaged and displayed. The work is funded by Cancer Research UK, which set up the centre in 1999 to look into why children start smoking.

Reports from the studies have been published by Cancer Research UK and in health journals, but Philip Morris says it wants access to raw data and other information relating to how fieldwork was carried out.

The university initially refused Philip Morris’s requests on the grounds that they were “vexatious”, but the Scottish Information Commissioner disagreed. Last week the university replied again to the company, this time refusing the requests on the grounds of cost.

The company, whose cigarette brands include Marlboro, made the first request anonymously through its lawyers in 2009, when they sought all primary data and questionnaires from a study on point-of-sale displays, as well as information on sampling and quotas, details of interviewers and how they were trained, details of how respondents were recruited, and information on weighting, analysis and handling of non-response.

A second request in 2010 asked for correspondence and notes of meetings and phone calls between staff who were working on a study testing the effects of removing logos from cigarette packaging. It also asked for the terms of reference, methodological information, and all data collected and drafts produced.

Professor Gerard Hastings, one of the authors of the studies, told Research the requests would cover everything “from raw data and focus group transcripts to draft analyses and personal communications”.

Hastings separately told The Daily Telegraph that Philip Morris’s actions amounted to an “abuse of the FOI legislation” and said that handing over the information would have “enormous implications” for academic freedom. He pointed out that some of the interviews involved children who had bought cigarettes illegally and who had not told their parents they smoked.

But the Scottish Information Commissioner decided that the requests were “not vexatious”, and that the university’s reply to Philip Morris had “unreasonably” sought further clarification on what information the company wanted, delaying its eventual response.

Hastings told Research: “The problem for us is that it is a time-consuming and stressful process for [which] we don’t have the resources – we are a small research unit funded by charities and the public sector.”

The university has so far not sought to rely on the exemptions provided by the Freedom of Information Act for confidential and personal information, but Hastings said: “Ethical approval for the study depends on our verbal and written assurance to participants that only the research team and bona fide researchers will have access to their comments and answers. Tobacco [multinationals] do not meet this definition.”

A spokesman for Philip Morris told Research today: “Studies such as these are frequently used as the basis for government decisions on significant regulatory initiatives. We believe that as part of the public discussion and government’s decision-making process this publicly funded research should be available to us and other interested stakeholders. We are not seeking any private or confidential information on any individuals interviewed in or involved with the research. Nor will we use the information received for marketing purposes.”

The company also pointed out that the Scottish Information Commissioner had concluded that its information request “was not designed to cause disruption to the university”.

Philip Morris has strongly opposed moves towards generic packaging for cigarettes, going as far as suing the Australian government over its plan to ban logos from packets on the grounds that the move would diminish the value of its trademarks.


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Readers' comments (6)

  • I find it troubling that a research group associated with a university would deny a request to examine study details. Philip Morris could easily be required to bear costs for duplication and transmission of this information, and personally identifying details could be stripped from records in a way that would preserve respondents' anonymity. Regardless of PM's motivation in requesting this information, open/peer review of methods and data is one of the cornerstones of academic research.

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  • As a responsible and ethical industry we must uphold our 'contract' with the public that we research - that only the research team and bona fide researchers will have access to their comments and answers.

    So to respond to the FOI request, why not provide the questionnaire up to that point as the request for any subsequent information clearly breaches that a priori agreement with each respondent (or provide a blank complete questionnaire).

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  • Wanting to see the *results* of the study is one thing; wanting access to primary data is another thing entirely. Researchers make promises to participants as part of the informed consent process, and those promises need to be kept.

    I blogged about the case, here:

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  • I think the Philip Morris spokesman's stated reasons for seeking the study data are sensible. We, the university and respondents should feel comfortable knowing that the firm is not seeking respondent-identifiable information. Thus, the university's promises to respondents can continue to be kept.

    The Scottish Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has reviewed the matter and decided that the requests were not vexatious. The ICO is the UK's data protection authority. Undoubtedly, they reviewed the privacy issues involved in this case and concluded that the university could easily address them by stripping out all identifying information from the datasets.

    It is time now for the university to do the right thing: fulfill the FOI request. The university is subject to FOI laws and so it should comply with its legal obligations.

    Yes, the process of fulfilling the request may be time-consuming and stressful, but these must not be excuses for non-compliance.

    All organizations that are subject to FOI laws must approach each study they undertake with a view to the possibility of it being subject to an FOI access request.

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  • This is vexatious indeed. But I think those in traditional MR agencies that follow ESOMAR/ MRS would find more merit in assessing how this study was done. There are clear guidelines of how children including teenagers can be approached and that parental consent be sought.

    I find this entire study discomforting. Too often Academic research is not bound by ESOMAR / MRS guidelines and perhaps it should be up to the University or an independent ombudsman to examine this and certify that there was no abuse of the process prescribed in interviewing children/ teenagers. And while, In this case it would have been difficult to, I am not sure if Academic research actually has quality back-checks to certify fieldwork was carried out at all and to prescribed standards.

    As far as data goes, I think its fair to get data without revealing respondent identity (the names, contact details, if necessary any other identifying variables). It is practically standard industry practice. We rarely are refused this data by agencies. Even if I need to look at questionnaires or physical records, I am provided copies without the contact details or sometimes the classification.

    Its vexatious mostly because it covered children and perhaps the contentious issue begins from there first.

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  • Even in the most developing country, with a primitive law enforcement structure, the research carried out by private market research agencies for tobacco / liquor follow the guidelines prescribed for markets like the US/EU. e.g. Respondents need to be adults i.e. of legal age and be aware of their rights. We take signatures, with identity proof to verify their age and there is never any 'benefit of doubt'. In the merest suspicion, we don't allow them to take part in the survey. The procedures are even stricter for sensory testing and inventories are maintained stringently.

    We really need to apply the same to socially funded research or academic research. There is no excuse for not being aware of respondents' rights and recommended ESOMAR procedures. And especially, ANY research concerning children/ teenagers should be done with even greater responsibility.

    Surprising that this took in the backyard of the country where the industry and its codes took flight.

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