Scottish Political Editor
AN INTERNATIONAL tobacco giant has been accused of harassing Scottish university staff and trying to sabotage their work on smoking by misusing freedom of information (FoI) laws.
Attempts by Philip Morris International (PMI) to obtain raw data from Stirling University’s Centre for Tobacco Control Research have now prompted a call for academic work to be exempt from FoI.
The company, which accounts for 16% of the global cigarette trade outside the USA, has tried for almost a year to get hold of the complete details of a project about smoking and young people.
Stirling University has so far refused, and claims PMI is trying to disrupt its work.
Despite hearing tobacco firms worldwide cynically exploit FoI to derail inconvenient medical research, Scotland’s freedom of information watchdog last week ruled in PMI’s favour, and ordered the University to change its stance.
The Stirling study concerns the proposed selling of cigarettes in plain packaging, a development Philip Morris vehemently opposes.
The firm recently launched legal action against the government of Australia to stop it becoming the first country in the world to move to plain packaging next year.
Instead of eye-catching brands, cigarettes would be sold in plain green packets with large health warnings and graphic colour photos of disease.
Lawyers for PMI wrote to the CTCR at Stirling last August about a project called "Piloting the use of plain packs in a real life environment: experiences of young adult snmokers".
PMI asked the university to hand over everything it held on the project, including notes of meetings and phone calls about it, the terms of reference, research methods, information on the "design and purpose" of the study, any draft reports, and all the data collected.
The University said the request was "vexatious".
However PMI appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, who last week issued a ruling on the case.
In it, he reported that Stirling felt the PMI request was "designed to cause disruption" and divert staff from their work.
Dunion also reported evidence from Stirling about the tobacco industry using FoI law round the world against health professionals, and its belief that effect of the PMI request was "the harassment of the University and researchers within the CTCR’s team".
Overall, that made PMI’s request "manifestly unreasonable and disproportionate", it said.
PMI in turn had argued that it had a "genuine and pressing need" to see the data because the UK government had also floated a move to plain packaging, which would have major implications for PMI and its brands, such as Marlboro and B&H. Dunion ruled PMI’s request was a signifcant burden but not manifestly unreasonable.
He also ruled there was also no evidence, in terms of FoI law, to justify claims of attempted disruption or harassment.
In conclusion, he said the PMI request was not vexatious and found the university had failed in its FoI duty to provide advice and assistanace.
Stirling must now respond to PMI by August 15.
It can either hand over the material, or try to withold it using different criteria.
CTCR director Professor Gerard Hastings said he could not comment on the ongoing PMI case, but said that in general there was "an enormous issue about legislation that was supposed to bring big government to heel being used by big business to stop academics doing their jobs, and to further their own interests.
"There’s a public interest debate about whether university research should be subject to FoI. Is this really what parliament wanted?"A spokeswoman for PMI said Dunion had confirmed its request was not vexatious, adding: "He also confirmed that PMI had a legitimate interest in seeking the information and ordered the University to respond. The Commissioner furthermore concluded that the information request was not designed to cause disruption or annoyance to the University nor did the Commissioner accept that the request from PMI has the effect of harassing the University."