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Opinion on FOI requests made by tobacco companies

Is your confidential research safe?

Philip Morris International, creators of the Marlboro brand, have submitted a number of Freedom of Information (“FOI”) requests to the University of Stirling regarding its research on tobacco packaging and marketing and its influence on young people.

Stirling’s initial reaction was to reject the requests on the grounds that they were vexatious and of questionable motives. Stirling also argued that allowing such FOI requests would have adverse implications for any future studies it might wish to undertake and that it had a duty of confidence to the young people who participated in the study. Philip Morris refuted these allegations, arguing that their intention was not to obtain confidential information on the studies’ participants, irritate the university or disturb its research work but rather that the information would enable them to learn more about packaging.

In June of this year, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) found that Stirling had failed to respond timeously and had not issued appropriate reasons to reject the request and ordered the university to reconsider. Stirling then responded to Philip Morris stating that to comply with the requests would result in excess expense in processing costs, this being a legitimate reason for refusal under FOI legislation. Whether Philip Morris will appeal this decision remains to be seen.

This may be the most recent example of a tobacco company trying to utilise information collected by a public body, but it is not the first. Earlier in 2011 a number of tobacco companies (Philip Morris included) made FOI requests to the Department of Health regarding tobacco regulation and received the information sought. This comes as no surprise when you bear in mind that In June 2009 the Department refused to release minutes from a meeting regarding the prospect of basic packaging of cigarettes only displaying health warnings and brand name and that on appeal of that decision by the ICO, the ICO determined that the minutes should be released.

Whilst the tobacco industry maintains that its FOI requests have valid objectives such as better understanding the objectives of Government and ensuring the sufficiency of information used by Government in its decision making, it is not difficult to see how many view the actions of the tobacco industry as an abuse of public information laws by corporate giants for their own commercial advantage.

From the university’s perspective it is imperative that its internal procedures for dealing with such requests are robust and comprehensive and that such requests are at all times managed so as not to prejudice the on-going research activities of the university. To the extent that such research is sponsored by third party funds, it is also imperative that any obligations of confidence assumed by the university in favour of that sponsor acknowledge the university’s obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.

For further information contact:

Dawn McKnight

T: 028 9034 8816

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