Leading tobacco company Philip Morris International (PMI), creators of the Marlboro brand, have sparked debate by submitting a number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the University of Stirling in respect of the University's research on tobacco packaging and marketing, and its influence on youths.
The University rejected PMI's requests, considering them “vexatious" and expressed doubts over the motives of PMI. The University also argued that allowing such FOI requests would have adverse implications, including breaching the confidence of youths and threatening the success of future studies.
PMI defended their requests by indicating that they were not attempting to access confidential details on participants of the studies. The information was sought on the basis that it would enable the company to learn more about packaging and was not intended to irritate the university or disturb the research it conducts.
In June of this year, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) found that the University had failed to respond timeously and had not issued appropriate reasons to reject PMI's requests. The ICO ordered the University to reconsider and the University then responded to PMI stating that to allow such requests would result in excess expense in processing costs, a legitimate reason for refusal under FOI legislation. Whether PMI will appeal the decision of the University is yet to be seen.
This is not the first occasion where the tobacco industry has sought to utilise information collected by public bodies. Earlier in 2011 PMI made FOI requests to the Department of Health (DOH) relating to tobacco regulation. A number of other large tobacco companies have made similar FOI requests to the DOH. In June 2009 the DOH refused to release minutes from a meeting regarding the prospect of basic packaging of cigarettes only displaying health warnings and brand name. The ICO determined that the minutes should be released.
Critics suggest that the actions of the tobacco industry are an abuse of public information laws by corporate giants for their own commercial advantage. The tobacco industry representatives maintain, however, that their FOI requests are made with valid objectives, such as ensuring sufficient evidence is considered within government departments or to better understand the government's decisions.