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Scottish university battling information request from tobacco company

Stirling University is battling a tobacco giant’s attempt to gain access to its research into young people’s smoking habits.

Philip Morris International (PMI), which makes Marlboro cigarettes, has submitted Freedom of Information (FoI) requests asking for the data from the University of Stirling.

The research, involving thousands of teenagers, examined why they start smoking and what they think of marketing by tobacco companies. Academics said that handing over the information would be a major breach of confidence and could jeopardise future research.
University facing information request from tobacco company

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

He said it would be “catastrophic” if the centre lost its fight and was forced to hand over the data.

He said: “Most fundamentally 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.

“It has enormous implications for academic freedom.”

One of the researchers has also received anonymous phonecalls trying to discredit her work, though there is no suggestion they are linked to PMI in any way at all.

The centre, which is part of the university’s Institute for Social Marketing, of which Prof Hastings is director, was established in 1999 by Cancer Research UK and aims to discover why children start smoking. Over the past decade the study has involved up to 6000 teenagers and young people aged 13-24.

The department is currently preparing a response to the FoI request which it will pass to the Information Commissioner. Prof Hastings said the process was taking a lot of time and effort.

A PMI spokeswoman said: “PMI made a Freedom of Information request to understand more about a research project conducted by the University of Stirling regarding plain packaging for cigarettes.

“Such government-funded research conducted by public institutions is covered by the Freedom of Information Act, in accordance with which members of the public can request information held by public authorities.

“With regards to this FoI request, the Scottish Information Commissioner confirmed in his decision of June 30, that we had a legitimate interest in seeking the information and asked the university to respond to the request.

“We are not seeking any private or confidential information on any individuals involved with the research. As provided by the Freedom of Information Act, confidential and private information concerning individuals should not be disclosed.”

She said that the commissioner also concluded that the information request submitted by PMI was not designed to cause disruption or annoyance to the university.