The world's largest tobacco company is attempting to gain access to confidential information about British teenagers' smoking habits.
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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 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.
The researchers also believe that the requests are having a chilling effect on co-operation with other academics who fear that sharing their own unpublished data with Stirling will lead to it being handed over to the tobacco industry.
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 many studies on smoking knowledge, attitudes and behaviour in children and adults.
"They wanted everything we had ever done on this," said Professor Gerard Hastings, the institute's director.
"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." Professor Hastings 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."
The information is anonymised and cannot be traced back to the interviewees. Philip Morris told The Independent that 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."
Stirling University is part of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, a network of nine universities, and is considered one of the premier research institutes for investigating smoking behaviour. Its Institute for Social Marketing receives funding from the Department of Health as well as leading charities and its research findings have been used as evidence to support anti-smoking legislation.
Cancer Research UK funded the Stirling research into the smoking behaviour of British teenagers in order to answer basic questions about why 85 per cent of adult smokers started smoking when they were children. The researchers at Stirling have built up an extensive database of interviews with 5,500 teenagers to analyse their attitudes to cigarette marketing, packaging and shop displays. "It is a big dataset now because we've been in the field several times talking to between 1,000 and 2,000 young people each time – going down to the age of 11 and up to the age of 16," Professor Hastings said. "These kids are often saying things they don't want their parents to know. It's very sensitive."
Asked what would happen if he lost the fight against Philip Morris, Professor Hastings said: "It would be catastrophic. I don't think that's an outcome I would like to contemplate. It is morally repugnant to give data confidentially shared with us by children to an industry that is so rapacious."
Linda Bauld, professor of socio-management at Stirling, said that other universities in Britain and abroad are following the case with trepidation: "Our colleagues in the community... will not be willing necessarily to hand over information."
Stirling's Institute for Social Marketing consists of 15 full-time researchers and operates with an annual staff budget of £650,000. Philip Morris International employs 78,000 people and has an annual turnover of £27.2bn.
Professor Hastings said that Philip Morris's demands have taken up large amounts of time and resources, diverting his department's attention from its primary role of investigating smoking behaviour. "We have spent a lot of time on this. A research unit like ours simply can't afford this," he said. "But for me the crux is the trust we have with young people. How easy will it be for us to get co-operation from young people in the future?
"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."
The researchers: Academics find that research into smoking can seriously damage their peace of mind
Academics studying the smoking behaviour of British teenagers and adults have found themselves to be the targets of vitriolic attacks by the pro-smoking lobby.
University researchers have been sent hate emails and some have even received anonymous phone calls, which usually come after a series of blogs posted on pro-smoking websites, including at least one which is linked to the tobacco industry.
Linda Bauld, professor of socio-management at Stirling University's Institute for Social Marketing, says she was unprepared for the scale of the personal attacks aimed at discrediting her work on smoking behaviour and anti-smoking legislation.
"I've had a series of anonymous calls starting about a year ago," Professor Bauld said. "These are phone calls in the evening when I'm at home with my children. It's an unpleasant experience.
"It's happened six or seven times and it's always an unknown number. It's usually after stuff has been posted on one of the main smokers' websites.
"They don't leave their name, they just say things like 'Keep taking the money', and 'Who are you to try to intervene in other peoples' lives', using a couple of profanities."
Professor Bauld has not reported the calls to the police but intends to be more discreet about the availability of her number. There is no evidence to suggest that tobacco companies are directly responsible for the anonymous phone calls. However, Professor Bauld has been identified as a legitimate target for criticism by Big Tobacco following her high-profile work on cigarettes and the impact of smoking bans. Her report for the Department of Health last March on the smoking ban in England found that there had been positive benefits to health and no evidence of any obvious negative impact on the hospitality industry, as the tobacco industry has repeatedly claimed.
Imperial Tobacco, the biggest cigarette company in Britain and makers of the best-selling Lambert & Butler brand, responded to Professor Bauld's report with its own review, called The Bauld Truth. This report, which took just a few weeks to write, claimed that Professor Bauld's study, conducted over three years, was "lazy and deliberately selective". It claimed that she used "flawed evidence and failed to validate her findings".
Professor Bauld said such personalised attacks were nothing new. Big Tobacco has a long history of aggressively dismissing scientific evidence linking smoking to ill health, she said. "These... are heavily peer-reviewed at every stage. Their methods are robust, whereas the evidence [the tobacco companies] draw on are not well-conducted studies," Professor Bauld said.
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