With Friends Like These….

Are tobacco companies abusing freedom-of-information laws by asking for the raw data obtained by academics studying teenage smoking?

Well, Maurice, since you’re director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information, why don’t you tell us? I mean, you’re surely impartia…


Research funded by a cancer charity trying to reduce smoking is being sought by a giant tobacco company keen to recruit users to its lethal products.

OK, maybe not. Clearly, the dispassionate look at the facts we might expect from someone in your position isn’t going to be forthcoming.

Not surprisingly, the requests are highly contentious.

No, I can bet you’re not surprised.

People who really believe that information should be free wouldn’t be, I’d have thought.

But is the threat as severe as it seems?

Is it actually a ‘threat’? Surely you should be asking that?

A problem for Stirling University’s Centre for Tobacco Control Studies is that our FOI laws are designed to be “applicant blind”. Decisions depend on whether information can safely be made public – not whether it should be released to the specific requester, however much it may be abhorred.

So, why is this a ‘problem’ for you? Am I alone in thinking this is a strange attitude to have from someone who supposedly champions freedom of information?

That principle is important. It means that an authority cannot refuse a request because the applicant is opposing its policies, criticising its competence, challenging its decisions in court or, in the case of an opposing political party, trying to replace it in government.

Then, why should that principle not apply equally to this case? Because you’re an anti-smoker?

It also means that it cannot refuse the request because it is made by a tobacco firm. But the university is entitled to take into account that making the information public would also make it available to such firms.

So, you’re only in favour of freedom of information when it suits you?

The researchers have argued that if they are forced to hand over the information (presumably even in anonymised form from which subjects could not be identified), funders will be reluctant to back them, other academics will not share data with them and teenagers will refuse to be interviewed in future.

Which seems no better than the other such claims made by other such organisations like government departments.

If this is true, then a specific exemption in the Scottish FOI Act may apply.

Did you have a big, self-satisfied smile on your face when you typed that?

Other exemptions, such as breach of confidence, may also apply. This means the “catastrophe” the researchers warn about may not be imminent at all.

I think if I were a member of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information, and I read this thinly-veiled attack piece, I’d be considering getting a new director assigned.

11 comments for “With Friends Like These….

  1. john in cheshire
    September 3, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    Mr Frankel seems to have caught the Climate ‘science’ disease. Or he’s been got at; or he’s been on a Common Purpose course or all of these. Judging by the report in the Independent, I’m not sure I’d believe a word this man says.

    • September 3, 2011 at 5:32 pm

      I agree.

  2. ivan
    September 3, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    One questions the reluctance of the ‘university’ to comply with the FOI request. Is it because their work will be shown to be just ‘smoke and mirrors’?

    • September 4, 2011 at 6:55 am

      Most likely!

  3. Geo
    September 3, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    i can only assume that the Stirling University’s Centre for Tobacco Control Studies have something very dodgy about this study to hide.

    After all there is no smoke without fire.

    • September 4, 2011 at 6:55 am


  4. the doctor
    September 3, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    So there you have it , Stirling University not wanting to disclose it’s research data to an applicant under the FOI Act , the lead researcher says that even with anonymised data they had promised absolute confidentiality . No-one can promise that , for there are certain things that if revealed during an interview must be reported to the competent authority e.g. terrorism , abuse and professional misconduct . No competent Research Ethics Committee should allow a promise of total anonymity or absolute confidentiality for they are not possible ; the most that can be promised is conditional confidentiality .
    When the researchers undertook this work supported by CRUK ( who receive their income from the general public , including smokers ) they have an obligation to publish the results and offer the data for peer review . Thus Phillip Morris have every right to request to check the veracity of the researchers analysis .

    • September 4, 2011 at 6:55 am

      It’s going to be interesting to see who wins this one.

  5. nisakiman
    September 3, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    Nice one Julia. Succinctly summarised.

  6. Steve W
    September 4, 2011 at 4:22 am

    Linda Bauld obviously has nothing to hide, she’s just standing up against those nasty tobacco companies who don’t believe the statistics she’s peddled to further her cause.
    Still, easily fixed, release the b@st@rd data and any confusion will be quickly cleared up, kind of how science is meant to work.

    Then again, she knows that she’s right, so why share data with someone who’s sole aim is to find something wrong with it? Oh yeah, cos that’s how science is meant to work.

    How did we sink so low?

  7. September 4, 2011 at 8:13 am

    This is yet another example of the dishonesty in politics – making high-sounding claims for “freedom” of information and the like but then carefully controlling it getting out. Everything I’e blogged on in the past few days [politically] has attacked this sort of dishonesty – now the PCists are rewriting the history books again in the interests of “fairness”.

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