University fights tobacco company to protect data on smoking

In collaboration with the Press Association

The world's largest maker of tobacco products is using Britain's Freedom of Information (FOI) law to request access to confidential academic research into the smoking habits of the country's teenagers.

The Independent claims that Philip Morris International, which makes Marlboro cigarettes, has tried to use FOI requests to obtain research conducted by Stirling University on the attitudes of teenagers towards smoking the marketing of tobacco.

Philip Morris says its interest in the data is "legitimate" but academics at the university claim that releasing the information would be a gross breach of confidence, which could put future studies at risk.

The research, which investigates teenagers' attitudes and behaviour with regards to smoking, was funded by Cancer Research UK in the hope of finding answers to the question of why 85 per cent of adults who smoke cigarettes started before they turn 18.

Stirling University is one of nine institutions that make up the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies and is considered a world leader in the analysis of people's attitudes and behaviour towards smoking. It receives funding from the Department of Health and leading charities, and its studies have been used in the past to support anti-smoking legislation.

Professor Gerard Hastings, director of Stirling University's Institute for Social Marketing, said it would be catastrophic if the company was to get hold of the data. He said: "I don't think that's an outcome I would like to contemplate. It is morally repugnant to give data confidentially shared with us by children to an industry that is so rapacious."

Jean King, Cancer Research UK's director of tobacco control, said: "Freedom of Information requests are valuable tools to help guarantee that the public interest is being served by public funds. We would question the tobacco industry's motivation for trying to access this information. Are they concerned about the health of young people and seeking to clarify the impact of tobacco marketing on the rates of youth smoking?"

Copyright Press Association 2011