The world's largest tobacco company has backed away from its demands to see thousands of confidential interviews with British teenagers gathered as part of a university research project into children's attitudes to smoking.
Philip Morris International, the makers of Marlboro, has quietly dropped its Freedom of Information request to see the interviews held by researchers at Stirling University, after the company was widely condemned following revelations by The Independent in September.
The tobacco company had to respond to the university's refusal to publish the interviews within 40 working days. Because Philip Morris has not responded within the required deadline, its two FoI requests have effectively lapsed – meaning that the company will now have to make a fresh application if it wants to pursue the matter.
"Over 40 days have elapsed since Philip Morris last communicated with the University of Stirling regarding research into smoking. On this basis we now regard that the correspondence on this particular request is now closed," the university said in a statement.
Philip Morris International attempted to make its first FoI request anonymously in September 2009, through the London law firm Clifford Chance. However, the Scottish information commissioner, Kevin Dunion, rejected the request on the grounds that Clifford Chance had to name its client – a legal clause not available under English law.
Under its own name, the tobacco giant then put in two further requests to Stirling's Institute for Social Marketing, led by Professor Gerard Hastings who said that Philip Morris wanted access to "everything we had ever done" on the attitudes and behaviour of children towards smoking and tobacco promotion.
"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 told The Independent this year.
The university initially refused the requests on the grounds that the claims were vexatious, which was rejected by Mr Dunion. 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.
Although the interviews are anonymised and the names of the children kept confidential, Professor Hastings said there was an understanding with the interviewees and their parents that the content of the interviews would remain confidential and would be shared only among university researchers.