Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 8 - January 2012
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Freedom of Information laws used to fight tobacco legislation

Industry giants make requests to obtain confidential government research

Tobacco giants are using legislation, originally created in the spirit of making government transparent to the public, to extract confidential information from the UK’s Department of Health.

Philip Morris International (PMI), maker of the internationally distributed cigarette brand Marlboro, submitted a Freedom of Information request about private meetings between government officials, cancer experts and researchers investigating the public health impact of new smoking policies related to Marlboro. This research examined why teenagers start smoking and what they think about tobacco marketing. 

According to the UK newspaper The Independent, access to the minutes of one of those confidential meetings has already been granted and PMI is now working on gaining access to confidential interviews conducted with British youth.

“It’s deeply concerning that they are even trying to get this data,” said Gerard Hastings, professor of Stirling University’s Centre for Tobacco Control Research in Scotland. “We are talking about children and this is data the tobacco companies themselves would never be allowed to collect.”

The research by the Centre was carried out over the past 10 years, involving some 6,000 teenagers and young people aged 13to 24. These opinions formed the basis for two major studies in the UK that analyzed the negative effects of cigarette packaging and marketing on youth. The studies were published in the Journal of Adolescents, the European Journal of Public Health and Tobacco Control journal.

Freedom of information

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom that creates a public right of access to information held by public authorities. Similarly in Canada, the Access to Information Act provides the right of access to information under the control of a government institution. It declares that government information should be available to the public, that necessary exceptions to the right of access should be limited and specific, and that decisions on the disclosure of any government information should always be reviewed independently of the government.

Stirling’s Centre for Tobacco Control Research refused to respond to PMI’s initial request in 2009, claiming it was “vexatious,” but Scotland’s information commissioner said on June 30 that this was not the case. He found that the university had failed to respond to the request within the required time limits. The university said that it has now made a proper response to PMI, but it is still refusing to hand over its research, on the basis that it will cost too much money. In fact, organizations may refuse a request if they believe the cost will be more than several hundred pounds.

Handing over this research, according to Hastings, would have extremely negative repercussions. “This information was given to us by young people in complete confidence. We assured them we would treat it with absolute confidence and that it would be restricted to the research. There is no way that Philip Morris qualifies in that definition. This has enormous implications on academic freedom. I don’t think Parliament had this in mind when it created these laws.”

A spokesperson for the commissioner told the media that if the commissioner deems this latest refusal unacceptable, the tobacco company could appeal again.

Jean King, director of tobacco control at Cancer Research UK, wonders what tobacco companies’ motives are in accessing this information. “We question the tobacco industry’s motives in trying to access this information. Are they concerned about the health of young people and seek to clarify the impact of tobacco marketing on the rates of youth smoking?”

The truth is that Freedom of Information requests are part of a global campaign to fight any further legislation on the restriction of cigarette sales and promotion, particularly in introducing plain cigarette packaging with no logos or branding. 

Philip Morris had also made requests to the Department of Health to gain access to government documents relating to tobacco regulations, according to a PMI spokesperson, and several others have been made over the years by PMI, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Tobacco.

What’s good for me... not so for you

Tobacco companies have been using Freedom of Information legislation to access government documents for years, but the tobacco industry itself is not subject to the same legislation. Tobacco control groups point to the fact that tobacco companies frequently refuse to make their own documents available, unless forced to do so by a court order.

They claim that information held by private companies is subject to protection for competitive reasons.

“We are concerned that this is a one-way street and that the tobacco industry is not in return being either transparent or honest,” said Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, a British health group established by the Royal College of Physicians that campaigns for public health and works to eliminate the harm caused by tobacco. “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 number of people smoking and dying from their addiction.”

By Joe Strizzi