Tobacco wars: University of Stirling vs. Phillip Morris Interntional

That some people do not agree with smokers' choices is no reason to start treating the law as a pick'n'mix counter, applying it only to groups we as a society are deemed to 'like'.

Smoking has lost its chic image, but it is still legal.
Donna Rachel Edmunds
On 13 September 2011 11:44

There has been much discussion over the last month on the role of social networking sites.

Cameron wants to shut down Twitter and Facebook every time trouble is scented on the horizon, for fear of armies of hoodies battering their way across the country. The rather less alarmist amongst us see the sites as a brave new world, bringing people into closer community no matter how far apart they are geographically.

Somewhere along that spectrum lies the rather cynical use of Facebook employed by Stirling University recently, when it set up a page entitled "Stirling University Freedom of Information Act". The page includes a poll asking:

"Researchers from Stirling University have undertaken surveys with young people (aged 11-16 years) asking about their views on smoking, views on tobacco marketing and their smoking behaviour. Philip Morris International, a tobacco manufacturer, has submitted a Freedom of Information request asking the University to hand over this data they have collected on young people and smoking. Q. What is your view on this? Do you think the University should or should not be required to hand over the data?"

Responses include the straightforward "should / should not" answers, alongside "Tobacco companies have no limit to how low they can stoop" and the somewhat confused "FoI is for individuals, not corporations!" (as respondents can also insert new responses, I assume these options didn't come from Stirling University themselves). Currently, the 'should nots' outweigh the 'shoulds' by roughly ten to one, not taking into account the other options.

However, all of this is rather disingenuous. As a publicly funded body, the university has to hand over the results of their research under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act whether they like it or not. And it's not just a matter of opinion over the wording of the law - the university was ordered to do so back in July by the Scottish Information Commissioner, after the university complained that the request was 'vexatious' - a complaint that was not upheld.

The summary of the ruling by the SIC (full details of which, including the information requested by Phillip Morris, can be found on the SIC's website) reads as follows:

"Philip Morris International (PMI) requested from the University of Stirling (the University) information relating to a survey which was carried out by the University's Centre for Tobacco Control Research (CTCR). The University refused to comply with PMI's request on the grounds that it was vexatious, in terms of section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA). Following a review, PMI remained dissatisfied and applied to the Commissioner for a decision.  "Following an investigation, the Commissioner found that the information request was not vexatious. He also found that the University had unreasonably sought clarification from PMI before responding to its request and that, as a consequence, had failed to respond to the request within the time limit set down by FOISA.  "In addition, he found that the University did not fulfil its duty under section 15 of FOISA in relation to providing advice and assistance to PMI."

The University makes no bones about it's anti-smoking bias and credentials. On the 'About Us' web page of it's Centre for Tobacco Control Research, it states as its aims as: 

To-Develop and evaluate interventions designed to prevent smoking uptake and encourage cessation.

Investigate the processes and effects of the tobacco industry's marketing activities, and on the basis of this undertaking, determine the most effective ways to counter them.

Evaluate specific tobacco control policies and identify those that successfully change smoking behaviour

In other words, it is declaring open hostility to a lawful, legitimate business with a client base of one quarter of this country's population. It has now broken the law in attempting to thwart that business from exercising it's legal right to examine any evidence that might affect it's trade; and it goes further still - in attempting to gain public support for that illegal act, furthering it's intention not to uphold the law.

If people do not like the product that Philip Morris manufactures, they are perfectly able to simply not buy the product. Indeed, various Government taxes and interventions have positively encouraged them in this course of action already. Therefore we must assume that the smoking population are happy with the product, know the risks (which are, of course, stated clearly on the packets), and have legitimate reasons for choosing to smoke. That some people do not agree with their choice is no reason to start treating the law as a pick'n'mix counter, applying it only to groups we as a society are deemed to 'like'.

Stirling University needs to stop messing around and release the data to PMI immediately. 

Donna Edmunds is Director of Research at Progressive Vision (@ProgVis), a libertarian think-tank. She tweets at @DonnaInSussex  

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