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Tobacco firm demands university’s research on children and smoking

Stirling University is fighting an attempt by Philip Morris to gain access to its research under freedom of information laws

Stirling University is fighting attempts by one of the world’s largest tobacco companies to get detailed access to its research into the smoking habits and attitudes of teenagers.

Philip Morris International, which makes Marlboro cigarettes, wants the university’s centre for tobacco control research to hand over its research data on thousands of children who are smokers, about their attitudes to smoking and reactions to packaging and advertising.

The company has successfully complained to the Scottish information commissioner, Kevin Dunion, after Stirling refused to answer a freedom of information request seeking access to the research.

The university said the firm’s application – originally made anonymously through a London law firm – was “vexatious” and rejected the application. But Dunion has overruled the university, and ordered it to respond to Philip Morris’s request.

Prof Gerard Hastings, the centre’s director, said the tobacco company was mining his research for confidential data on children’s attitudes, which a company would not be allowed to collect itself on medical ethics grounds.

“They wanted everything we had ever done on this,” Hastings told the Independent. “These are confidential comments about how youngsters feel about tobacco marketing. This is the sort of research that would get a tobacco company into trouble if it did it itself.”

He added: “What is more, these kids have been reassured that only bona fide researchers will have access to their data. No way can Philip Morris fit into that definition.”

Philip Morris said it was not seeking any confidential data that would identify the interviewees, and said the research findings it wanted to see were anonymised.

Anne Edwards, the company’s head of external communications, said: “As provided by the FOI [Freedom of Information] Act, confidential and private information concerning individuals should not be disclosed. We made the request in order to understand more about a research project conducted by the University of Stirling on plain packaging for cigarettes.”

The centre for tobacco control research was set up by the charity Cancer Research Campaign, now Cancer Research UK, in 1999 within the university’s institute for social marketing, and is part of a UK-wide network of units studying tobacco and smoking.

The dispute throws up the prospect of a drawn-out legal battle between the university and Philip Morris: if Stirling again refuses the firm’s request, the appeal process could result in a judicial hearing at the court of session, Scotland’s civil court.

The Scottish information commissioner’s office said he had to judge Philip Morris’s application neutrally under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2000, which is less restrictive than the equivalent legislation for England and Wales.

Dunion has not ordered the university to release the data but to properly assess the application. “What the commissioner has ruled is that he doesn’t believe that the request is vexatious,” a spokeswoman said. “All he has done is say: ‘You need to deal with this because it is a valid request.’ But the university could still refuse it on other grounds.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds