Independent? You're having a laugh!
Friday, September 2, 2011 at 0:57
Simon Clark

Philip Morris International (PMI) took a bit of a kicking in yesterday's Independent.

And so, by insinuation, did Forest, Taking Liberties and the rest of the "pro-smoking" blogosphere.

The story, billed as an "exclusive", concerned PMI's perfectly legitimate request for Stirling University to reveal "full details of its research involving confidential interviews with thousands of children aged between 11 and 16 about their attitudes towards smoking and cigarette packaging".

I say 'perfectly legitimate' for one simple reason. Stirling University, as the Independent explained, is part of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, a network of nine publicly-funded universities.

However, while the paper admitted that Stirling University's Institute for Social Marketing "receives funding from the Department of Health" it didn't say how much, or that the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies will receive £3,694,498 of public money over five years, commencing June 2008. It was also awarded a £1.2 million grant to develop and pilot several projects to implement smoking cessation services. (See Forest report, Government Lobbying Government, October 2010, revised January 2011.)

That, dear reader, is money that was picked from the pockets of taxpayers like you and me. PMI, I imagine, also pay tax to the British government. I therefore think that PMI, Forest or any other UK taxpayer has every right to ask questions of publicly-funded institutions like Stirling University and the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies – and expect a straight answer.

The hilarious thing is, I'm clearly not alone because the most extraordinary thing about the Independent report, which was splashed across the front page with a double-page spread inside, is this.

Far from being an "exclusive", the story had already appeared in the Sunday Herald on July 17, six weeks ago. (See University says tobacco giant is ‘harassing staff’.)

Like the Independent, the Sunday Herald chose to emphasise the alleged "harassing" of academic staff:

bq. 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) law.

But wait, what's this? Half-way through the Sunday Herald report it was revealed that:

bq. Scotland’s freedom of information watchdog last week ruled in PMI’s favour and ordered the university to change its stance.

In case you thought that was an error, here's the final paragraph:

bq. [Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin] Dunion ruled PMI’s request was a significant 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 the university had failed in its FoI duty to provide advice and assistance.

Fancy that!

Needless to say the Independent failed to mention this important ruling or the fact that, in the opinion of the Scottish Information Commissioner, PMI's request was not "vexatious" as the University claimed.

Instead the paper went even further than the Sunday Herald and claimed that:

bq. The demands from the tobacco company, made using the UK's Freedom of Information law, have coincided with an internet hate campaign targeted at university researchers involved in smoking studies.

bq. One of the academics has received anonymous abusive phone calls at her home at night. She believes they are prompted by an organised campaign by the tobacco industry to discredit her work, although there is no evidence that the cigarette companies are directly responsible.

Under the separate heading, 'Academics find that research into smoking can seriously damage their peace of mind', the paper reported that:

bq. University researchers have been sent hate emails and some have even received anonymous phone calls, which usually come after a series of blogs posted on pro-smoking websites, including at least one which is linked to the tobacco industry.

I'm not sure how I feel about being smeared like this. Perhaps I should ask for some evidence, using the Freedom of Information Act. Then again, I'm not sure that evidence is tobacco control's strong point.

There is more (much more) I could write about this. For the moment though I shall simply direct you to Dick Puddlecote where you can read his take on this story.

I suggest too that you read Linda Bauld's publicly-funded report for the Department of Health (The Impact of Smokefree Legislation in England) followed by Imperial Tobacco's equally interesting response, The Bauld Truth (seemingly dismissed by the Independent because it "took just a few weeks to write").

Read them both – and make up your own mind.

Meanwhile I'm looking forward to reading today's Independent. Apparently, there's going to be another 'Big Tobacco expose'. Can't wait.

Update on Friday, September 2, 2011 at 1:07 by Registered CommenterSimon Clark

And here is today's "exclusive":

Tobacco giants tell Whitehall to hand over its secret minutes ... 'Department of Health targeted by Gallaher and Philip Morris'.

The tobacco industry is targeting the Department of Health to extract information about meetings between government officials and researchers who are investigating the public-health implications of new smoking policies.

One leading tobacco company has asked for – and been given access to – the minutes of a confidential meeting between health department officials, cancer experts and foreign government officials – to the surprise of those who attended the private discussions.

The only possible response to that is – good, and long overdue!!

Meanwhile, H/T to Belinda Cunnison for this link: Let the tobacco company see the data (Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, writing on the BMJ Blogs).

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