Lung cancer patients' medical records sent to US company linked with tobacco giant Philip Morris

Public Health England released the anonymised NHS data under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act to William E Wecker Associates

Jon Sharman
Monday 15 January 2018 19:06 GMT
Cigarette butts are seen outside of a club on July 17, 2017
Cigarette butts are seen outside of a club on July 17, 2017 (Reuters/Vincent West)

Privacy campaigners have called for MPs to investigate why records of 180,000 lung cancer patients were released to an American company that has worked for tobacco giants including Philip Morris.

Public Health England (PHE) released the anonymised NHS data under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act to William E Wecker Associates.

It was done without the permission of the patients and encompassed every case in England over a four-year period, The Daily Telegraph reported.

Silkie Carlo, director of the Big Brother Watch pressure group, said: “It is appalling that Public Health England has given away 180,000 cancer patients’ confidential information to a commercial firm.

“This release of such sensitive data could only increase patients’ suffering and many of those affected are rightly outraged.

“Big Brother Watch fully supports calls for an inquiry by the Health Select Committee.

“This Government needs to understand the importance of data protection and consent in today’s world. It makes absolutely no sense that cancer patients lack consent over their medical records.”

Philip Morris International produces six of the top 15 brands of cigarette, including Marlboro.

Wecker’s website said it had also worked with Japan Tobacco International, Altria Group and Lorillard.

It is also linked to other bodies such as the American Medical Association.

The company claims to have “established a track record of creative and effective applications of statistical and mathematical analysis to questions arising in regulation and litigation, in business and government”.

In its data request, Wecker said it wanted to evaluate lung cancer trends in Australia, Ireland, the UK and the US.

PHE defended its actions, saying it had a legal duty to release the information on 179,040 lung tumours diagnosed between 2009 and 2013, which it did in July 2016.

Dr Jem Rashbass, its national director for disease registration and cancer analysis, said: “We released this data under our legal duty to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

“Patient confidentiality is of utmost importance and we’ve ensured that not sensitive or identifying patient information has been released.

“Any organisation or person can submit an FoI request and is legally entitled to a response, provided there is no applicable exemption.”

Dr Rashbass later added: “This is anonymised information of a kind that we regularly provide for cancer research.

“We have very strict processes for managing patient data and fully comply with NHS requirements for handling it.

“No identifiable patient information has been released and prior to the disclosure we thoroughly checked the study protocols which stated clearly that it is a piece of medical research. We have a duty to provide data for health purposes when its disclosure is not subject to any exemption.”

The Independent has contacted Wecker for comment.

Additional reporting by agencies

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