NEWS5 September 2011
NEWS5 September 2011
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.