The tobacco industry is targeting the Department of Health to extract information about meetings between government officials and researchers who are investigating the public-health implications of new smoking policies.
One leading tobacco company has asked for – and been given access to – the minutes of a confidential meeting between health department officials, cancer experts and foreign government officials – to the surprise of those who attended the private discussions.
The Freedom of Information requests are part of a global campaign by tobacco companies to fight any further legal restrictions on cigarette sales and promotion, particularly the introduction of plain cigarette packets devoid of company logos and branding.
Yesterday, The Independent revealed that the world's biggest tobacco company, Philip Morris International, has demanded access to confidential interviews with British children about their smoking attitudes and behaviour, collected as part of a research project at Stirling University funded by the charity Cancer Research UK. It used the Scottish Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to request the information.
Jean King, Cancer Research UK's director of tobacco control, said: "We would question the tobacco industry's motivation for trying to access this information. Are they concerned about the health of young people and seeking to clarify the impact of tobacco marketing on the rates of youth smoking?"
Earlier this year, Philip Morris also submitted FOI requests to the Department of Health in order to access government documents related to "tobacco regulation", according to Anne Edwards, director of external communications at Philip Morris International, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes.
The Department of Health has been subject to a series of FOI requests from tobacco companies, including one from Gallaher, which is part of Japan Tobacco International, the world's third-largest cigarette company and which makes top-selling brands such as Silk Cut, Camel and Benson & Hedges.
Although tobacco companies can use FOI legislation to access government documents, the tobacco industry itself is not subject to the legislation. Critics of the industry point to the difficulty of extracting information from tobacco companies, which frequently refuse to open their own files unless forced to do so by a court order.
"Unlike official information held by government agencies, information held by private companies such as ours is often of a commercial nature and therefore cannot be released for competitive reasons," Ms Edwards said.
In its FOI request, Gallaher wanted all information that the health department kept that could be viewed as evidence in favour of introducing plain-packaging legislation. It also wanted all correspondence between the department and outside organisations, such as the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies – a consortium of nine UK universities – and the scientific research charities Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation.
The Department of Health tried to block giving out the minutes of a June 2009 meeting between its officials, cancer experts and overseas government representatives to discuss the possibility of introducing plain, logo-free cigarette packets that would contain only a warning and the brand name written in a plain typeface.
However, the Information Commissioner ruled that the minutes should be released to Gallaher, despite the fact that the meeting was held under the "Chatham House rule", which states that the identify or affiliation of the speakers should not be revealed.
Deborah Arnott, the chief executive of ASH, who attended the meeting, said: "We are concerned that this is a one-way street and that the tobacco industry is not in return being either transparent or honest. The industry wants access to government documents and academic research for one purpose only: to help it fight regulation – regulation which is essential to reduce the numbers smoking and dying from their addiction."
Japan Tobacco International, which owns Gallaher, said it was not possible in the time allowed to list all other FOI requests it has made to government departments, but, in the case of its health department request, the company wanted to understand what materials were being relied upon as evidence for tobacco-control legislation.
The company accepted that Freedom of Information did not apply to its own documents. "Of course, we are not a public authority for the purposes of the FOI Act, although we are subject to various regulatory reporting requirements," said Jeremy Blackburn, head of communications at Japan Tobacco International UK.
Imperial Tobacco, the makers of the UK's best-selling brand Lambert & Butler, said that its vending business Sinclair Collis, a wholly-owned subsidiary, has also made an FOI request to the Department of Health because of concerns over a ban on the sale of cigarettes from vending machines.
"Sinclair Collis made the FOI request because of concerns it had about the lack of evidence for a ban and the lack of clarity surrounding the Government's decision-making process," said Simon Evans, a spokesman for Imperial Tobacco.
Lobby group has a change of personnel
The tobacco firms are overhauling the organisation set up to lobby for their interests, after failing to overturn the anti-smoking policies of the Labour government. Five of the seven people employed by the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, including its head, Christopher Ogden, are leaving. Mr Ogden, who has worked for the TMA since 1997 and has been chief executive since 2007, steps down next month.
The TMA was set up by the three firms that dominate the smokers' market: British-American Tobacco, Gallaher and Imperial Tobacco. It has had a frustrating year lobbying unsuccessfully for the easing of restrictions on advertising and marketing imposed since 2003 or the ban on smoking in public places introduced in 2007. A ban on cigarette vending machines, passed by MPs in October 2009, will also go ahead.
A spokesman for the TMA said that it is going through "organisational restructuring to take account of the changing nature of the regulatory climate in the UK".
He added: "The aim of the new TMA will be to co-ordinate and represent its member companies' interests and efforts, whilst reducing costs, removing areas of duplication and concentrating on core activities. Some positions in the TMA are being made redundant in the course of the restructure, but new roles have been created and the head count at the TMA will remain the same."
A brief history of tobacco branding
* In the 20th century, the imagery of big tobacco permeated the public consciousness. Lucky Strike white packets, first sold in 1942, were designed by Raymond Loewy, the man behind the Coca-Cola logo, and are still remembered as milestone in modern design.
* Advertisers focused their efforts on the glamour of the cigarette, with celebrity endorsements and slogans that said, out loud, that successful people smoke.
* Men were urged to join the likes of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in enjoying a Chesterfield, or John Wayne, who preferred Camels – or so a famous poster claimed in 1950. In 1954, another cowboy, the Marlboro Man, popularised the filter cigarette as a trophy of masculinity.
* The tobacco giants soon turned their attentions to women. In 1968 the Philip Morris group released "a cigarette for women only", the Virginia Slim, whose "you've come a long way, baby" publicity campaign made the cigarette a trophy of female emancipation.
* The culture of some sports became dependent upon tobacco-industry sponsorship. Embassy backed the big snooker and darts competitions and dished out free cigarettes to the players.
* In Formula 1, the entire look of cars and team uniforms was dictated by whichever tobacco brand was backing them. Before the 1960s, teams competed in their national colours. Team Lotus were the first, carrying the Gold Leaf logo at the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix. The rest of the sport soon followed. McLaren cars were red and white for Marlboro for 20 years; Jordan cars turned yellow when Benson & Hedges began sponsoring them in 1996. Ferrari carried the Marlboro logo until 2007.
* In the UK, health warnings first appeared on cigarette packets in 1971, on the advice of the Royal College of Physicians. A ban on TV advertising for cigarettes followed in 1986 and a 2002 law banned almost all forms of promotion, including sporting events.
* The cigarette packet itself has become a battleground between marketers and regulators. All packets have carried health warnings since 2003, with much of the pack devoted to the warning.