It is disquieting, to put it mildly, that Philip Morris – the very embodiment of Big Tobacco – has applied to see a university department's data on smoking habits. The research programme, which is trying to identify what makes smoking attractive to young people, is funded in part by the Department of Health and cancer charities. But the relevance of the same information to tobacco companies' marketing departments can hardly be a mystery. With the vast majority of adult smokers becoming hooked in their teens, this is where the battle has to be fought and won.
Stirling University's Institute for Social Marketing, which is part of a wider UK project, has so far resisted the requests, which have been made under the Freedom of Information Act. It has pleaded that its budget does not extend to the staffing that would be required and that many of the interviews were conducted with children, whose cooperation was secured against assurances about the purpose of the research and confidentiality. It is also concerned that funding from cancer charities might be jeopardised if the data was made available to a tobacco company.
We share the university's misgivings. But this dispute raises important issues which might not be quite as open and shut as they seem. In Britain's notoriously closed society, the FoI represented an important advance, presuming that information should be open to scrutiny except in clearly specified circumstances. Scientific research, which has a value in its own right, but potentially also a commercial and social value, could be seen as the university's exclusive property. If the university and the research, however, have taxpayer funding, should the findings not be more widely available? In the end, the Information Commissioner might have to weigh the arguments – and that might be no bad thing.