FOI: Stirling University

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Philip Morris has legally challenged the Institute for Social Marketing and Centre for Tobacco Control Research at the University of Stirling under Freedom of Information legislation.

Tobacco Company Hides Behind Lawyers

In September 2009, the University received a letter from Clifford Chance, asking for a vast array of data from the Unit’s study into teenage smoking including ‘all primary data’, ‘all questionnaires’, ‘all interviewers’ handbooks and/or instructions’, ‘all data files’, ‘all record descriptions’ and ‘all information relating to sampling, data collection, handling of non-response and post-stratification weighting and analysis’.
Clifford Chance challenged the University’s 60 page explanation of why issues such as young people’s confidentiality prevented the data from being handed over, leading to an internal review, and the case going to the Scottish Information Commissioner for adjudication. The Commissioner rejected Clifford Chance’s appeal because the law firm had failed to identity that its client was Philip Morris.1

A New Request

In summer 2011, Philip Morris itself filed a Freedom of Information Act to acquire the raw material behind Stirling University’s research into young people’s smoking habits. The request was aimed at the research data that the government had used in its plans for plain packaging and the tobacco display ban.1
The Department of Health had commissioned a summary of the impact of smoke-free legislation since 2007. Professor Linda Bauld, the UK government’s scientific adviser on tobacco control, reviewed the results of recent research. She concluded there had been positive benefits to health and no evidence of any obvious negative impact on the hospitality industry, as tobacco companies have repeatedly claimed. The government published Bauld’s report alongside its Tobacco Control Plan in March.2
Once again the request was refused, this time on the point that the company was being “vexatious”. As part of the University’s defence it provided a dossier showing how the industry had used FOI legislation around the world to impede public health. Once again there was an appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner, who ruled that the company was not being vexatious and that other exemptions in the legislation could apply. In September 2011, the Independent newspaper ran the headline: “Smoked out: tobacco giants war on science”.3

Request has “Chilling Effect” on Researchers

The Independent noted how the researchers at the University “believe that the requests are having a chilling effect on cooperation with other academics who fear that sharing their own unpublished data with Stirling will lead to it being handed over to the tobacco industry.”
“They wanted everything we had ever done on this,” Professor Gerard Hastings, the Institute’s director told the paper. “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. 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”.
In its defence, Philip Morris argued that “We made the request in order to understand more about a research project conducted by the University of Stirling on plain packaging for cigarettes.”3
The Philip Morris FOIA action served several goals:

  •  it cost the Stirling Management School time and money to deal with request
  • the industry tried to gain access to research that was used to decide on new regulation, and could therefore use the insights in its lobbying of decision makers
  • it was seen to have a “chilling” effect effect on the researchers and their ability to cooperate with colleagues, not to mention the trust they had with young people – their research population.
  • it was a potential threat to funding of research by cancer charities, which would think twice about succouring multinational tobacco corporations.

FOIs are an effective way of influencing science. The FOI requests also coincided with a smear Campaign targeting Professor Linda Bauld of Stirling University in the blogosphere, although there is no evidence that Philip Morris was involved.

Philip Morris Quietly Drops FOI Request

Philip Morris eventually dropped its Freedom of Information request to see the interviews held by the Stirling University researchers, after the company was widely condemned following revelations by The Independent in September 2011. The university initially refused the requests on the grounds that the claims were vexatious, which was rejected by the Scottish information commissioner. It then claimed it would be too costly and time consuming, but Philip Morris even offered to pay for the added costs, an offer which the university refused.
The tobacco company failed to respond to the university’s refusal to publish the interviews within 40 working days. As a result of missing this deadline, the two FOI requests lapsed. Philip Morris will now have to make a fresh application if it wants to pursue the matter.4

Relevant TobaccoTactics Sources

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  1. abG. Hastings, The Marketing Matrix: How the Corporation Gets Its Power – and how We Can Reclaim it, Routledge, in press
  2. Linda Bauld, Impact of smokefree legislation: evidence review, Department of Health, March 2011, accessed January 2012
  3. abS. Connor, “Exclusive: Smoked out: tobacco giant’s war on science – Philip Morris seeks to force university to hand over confidential health research into teenage smokers,” The Independent, 1 September 2011, accessed February 2012
  4. Steve Connor, Tobacco giant drops demand to see research on teenage smokers, The Independent, 26 November 2011, accessed April 2012