The tobacco industry is covertly using third-party companies to lobby against smoking restrictions and to gain access to health documents held by public organisations.
Public relations companies and law firms are working on behalf of anonymous multinational tobacco companies without declaring who their clients are, according to an investigation by The Independent.
The third parties have refused to confirm they are working on behalf of tobacco firms when they make freedom of information requests from universities and other public bodies, even though the third parties are demanding more openness from their targets.
The public relations company Bell Pottinger and the London law firm Clifford Chance have both requested information from public organisations without making it clear they are working on behalf of tobacco firms.
The Irish PR company Hume Brophy has also carried out a lobbying campaign against the Government's ban on cigarette displays in shops on behalf of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents without stating that the campaign was being funded by the tobacco industry.
The Independent has established that Alex Deane, a former chief-of-staff to David Cameron, played a key role in attempts to use the freedom of information law against one public organisation involved in promoting awareness against the health dangers of roll-up tobacco. Mr Deane is a director of Bell Pottinger which earlier this year requested documents from a health-awareness organisation funded by the NHS, the Bristol-based Smoke Free South West, following a campaign it ran against roll-up tobacco, which is popular in that part of the country.
Soon after this informal request, Smoke Free South West received a formal freedom of information request for the same documentation from Big Brother Watch, a right-of-centre libertarian group founded by Mr Deane.
Neither Bell Pottinger nor Big Brother Watch declared to Smoke Free South West that they had held discussions with one another or with Bristol-based Imperial Tobacco, which is listed as one of Bell Pottinger's clients in the PR firm's website, and makes Golden Virginia rolling tobacco and Rizla cigarette papers.
Mr Deane was not available for comment yesterday; Bell Pottinger said he was on holiday. David Petrie, the Bell Pottinger executive who sent the email requests to Smoke Free South West, did not return calls. Daniel Hamilton, a director of Big Brother Watch, refused to confirm or deny that his organisation had been in contact with Bell Pottinger or Imperial Tobacco over the FOI request to Smoke Free South West. "We don't work on behalf of other groups. We only work on behalf of ourselves... We've got no formal links with anyone in the tobacco industry," Mr Hamilton said.
This week, The Independent revealed that tobacco companies had demanded access to confidential university research papers on teenagers' attitudes to smoking, as well as meetings within the Department of Health between government officials and experts on smoking and health.
Stirling University, which carries out research on behalf of the Health Department and Cancer Research UK, said Philip Morris, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes, was attempting to access thousands of confidential interviews with British teenagers.
The FOI request was initially made in 2009 through the London law firm Clifford Chance, which tried to keep the identify of its client confidential. However, under the Scottish Freedom of Information Act, which is slightly different to the English Act, a third party must name the client it is working for – in this case Philip Morris.
A spokeswoman for Clifford Chance said she could not comment on whether the law firm was carrying out any further freedom of information requests on behalf of tobacco companies. Under the English FOI Act, third parties can work on behalf of anonymous clients.
Hume Brophy, the Irish public relations company, admitted it was a mistake to conduct a parliamentary lobbying campaign against cigarette displays in shops without making it clear it was paid for by the tobacco industry. In a letter to Stephen Williams MP, John Hume, a partner in the company, said that it will not happen again.
Martin Dockrell of the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health said that the tobacco industry's use of "front" organisations was nothing new.
"Big Tobacco's dirty little secret is how they get others to do their dirty work," Mr Dockrell said. "Some front groups are pretty much wholly owned subsidiaries; some appear to be independent but tobacco companies pay the bills and pull the strings."
Former Cameron crony leading the fight for the smoking lobby
Alex Deane served as David Cameron's chief of staff when Cameron was shadow education secretary from 2004-2005. A Tory activist since 1995, Mr Deane is now a director of Bell Pottinger, the public relations firm set up by Lord Bell, the Tory peer. He was a founding director of Big Brother Watch, a right-of-centre libertarian pressure group that opposes state-controlled surveillance and what it sees as intrusions into civil liberties. He has opposed CCTV cameras, DNA databases, council surveillance and data chips in dustbins. Big Brother Watch also stoutly defends the rights of smokers to smoke in public places.