News

Tobacco company makes freedom of information request for university’s research

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d5655 (Published 05 September 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5655
  1. Bryan Christie
  1. 1Edinburgh

A Scottish university may be forced to hand over detailed research into teenage smoking to a cigarette manufacturer after failing to block a request it made under freedom of information legislation.

Gerard Hastings, director of the Centre for Tobacco Control at the University of Stirling, said that such an outcome would be “catastrophic” and would have enormous implications for academic freedom.

Philip Morris International, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, has submitted a series of freedom of information requests to get access to the Stirling centre’s research into the smoking behaviour of British teenagers.

The university has resisted the requests, arguing that they are “vexatious” and part of an established pattern of the tobacco industry using freedom of information legislation to disrupt research work it considers to be against its own interests.

Philip Morris has appealed to Scotland’s information commissioner, Kevin Dunion, who has dismissed the university’s case for failing to release the information. He says that the fact that the company may be opposed to work being carried out at the university is not grounds for refusing access to the material. He has judged it a valid request and asked the university to respond to the demands being made by Philip Morris.

If the university cannot find another argument to convince Mr Dunion to block the release, he may order it to make the information available. The university will then have to comply or challenge the decision in the courts.

Professor Hastings criticised the use of freedom of information legislation in this context. “I don’t think for a moment that parliament had this in mind when it created their laws. It is morally repugnant to give data confidentially shared with us by children to an industry that is so rapacious.”

He said that it would be impossible for researchers to retain the trust of young people who participated in the studies and of the cancer charities who funded the research if the information was handed over to the tobacco industry. “Our funders will have to think carefully about the further funding of our research. I don’t think for one moment a cancer charity is going to take kindly to paying us hundreds of thousands of pounds to give aid and succour to a multinational tobacco corporation.”

But his concerns were not shared by Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ. In a BMJ Group blog he says, “It’s legitimate to worry that the data will be misused by the tobacco company, but denying them access to the data is not the right response. Inevitably it will look as if the researchers have something to hide. The way for the researchers to counter the tobacco company is not through hiding their data but through better analysis and better argument. That is the essence of science” (http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2011/09/01/richard-smith-let-the-tobacco-company-see-the-data).

Philip Morris said that it was not seeking any private or confidential information but had submitted the request in an attempt to understand more about Stirling University’s research into plain packaging.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5655