The world's largest tobacco company is attempting to gain access to confidential information about British teenagers' smoking habits.
Philip Morris International, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, is seeking to force a British university to reveal full details of its research involving confidential interviews with thousands of children aged between 11 and 16 about their attitudes towards smoking and cigarette packaging.
The demands from the tobacco company, made using the UK's Freedom of Information law, have coincided with an internet hate campaign targeted at university researchers involved in smoking studies. One of the academics said she has received anonymous abusive phone calls at her home at night. She believes they are prompted by an organised campaign by the tobacco industry to discredit her work, although there is no evidence that the cigarette companies are directly responsible.
Philip Morris says it has a "legitimate interest" in the information, but researchers at Stirling University say that handing over highly sensitive data would be a gross breach of confidence that could jeopardise future studies.
Philip Morris International made its first Freedom of Information (FoI) request anonymously through a London law firm in September 2009. However, the Information Commissioner rejected the request on the grounds that that law firm, Clifford Chance, had to name its client. Philip Morris then put in two further FoI requests under its own name seeking all of the raw data on which Stirling's Institute for Social Marketing has based its studies. "They wanted everything we had ever done on this," said Professor Gerard Hastings, the institute's director. "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."
The information is anonymised and cannot be traced back to the interviewees. Philip Morris told i it is not seeking private information on named individuals. "As provided by the FoI Act, confidential and private information concerning individuals should not be disclosed," said Anne Edwards, director of external communications at Philip Morris. "We made the request in order to understand more about a research project conducted by the University of Stirling on plain packaging for cigarettes."Reuse content