Richard Smith: Let the tobacco company see the data

Richard SmithPhilip Morris International, a tobacco company, is using the Freedom of Information Act to request data from research conducted at Stirling University into why young people start smoking. The university is resisting. I think that it is wrong to do so.

 I’m sure that this view will seem outrageous to many BMJ readers, and I must immediately make clear that I long for a tobacco free world and gained some notoriety when I resigned as a visiting professor at Nottingham University when it took money from British American Tobacco to found a centre for corporate social responsibility. I also, however, became a hate figure for antitobacco campaigners when the BMJ, when I was the editor, published a study supported in part by the tobacco industry that suggested that passive smoking wasn’t as harmful as widely thought.

Stirling University, according to the BBC, seems to be resisting releasing the data on two grounds—firstly, that it would be a breach of confidentiality and, secondly, that tobacco companies wouldn’t be allowed to collect the data themselves.

The first argument is specious because the company is not asking for data on individual patients. Certainly researchers should not release information on individuals unless they have very clear consent to do so. The second argument seems irrelevant in that the tobacco companies are not seeking to gather the data.

Researchers are traditionally unwilling to release data, but the times are changing fast. Funders of research increasingly expect researchers to make data publicly available—not least because those data can be mined to produce further useful results. Almost all of economic research, for example, is based on secondary data.

The resistance of researchers seems to have two main causes. Firstly, collecting data can be expensive and difficult. They are reluctant for others, whether or not they are tobacco companies, to benefit from their hard work, perhaps using the data to produce something much more interesting and brilliant. The second reason, which is very relevant in these circumstances, is that the data will be misused, manipulated to produce results counter to those produced by the original researchers.

It’s legitimate to worry that the data will be misused by the tobacco company, but denying them access to the data is not the right response. Inevitably it will look as if the researchers have something to hide, perhaps some suspect torturing of the data. Whether we like it or not, as I have said and written many times, we live in an age where what is not transparent is assumed to be biased, incompetent, or corrupt until proved otherwise. The way for the researchers to counter the tobacco company is not through hiding their data but through better analysis and better argument. That is the essence of science.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.

  • Richard I remember all the flack you too from the anti smoking lobby in 2003 when you published the Enstrom/Kabat paper. I think the anti tobacco's main problem is that and I could use some strong words here is that many of the papers coming from anti tobacco are often of not sufficient academic rigour. Thank you for writing this piece.

    As a light hearted aside are you Arthur Smith the comedian's brother. The irony is that I know more about you than him.

  • JonathanBagley

    Who requests the data is not relevant to the FOI Act. Also,

    “Researchers are traditionally unwilling to release data…”

    Well, this certainly the case in the field of Tobacco Control, even in the bmj, which has a stated policy that data must be provided with papers submitted for publication. It is not the case in, for example, econometrics journals, which require all data and code.

    Let's not beat about the bush. Other than commercial confidentiality there is only one reason for keeping data secret; and the University of Stirling is not making money out of this data.

  • jimbobswatson

    Thanks for a piece of genuine common sense!

    I think that the provision of data by publicly funded bodies is especially important when Government policy is involved. Clearly, there will be circumstances where the subject matter requires secrecy, such as defence, but those matters are pretty well covered by the Official Secrets Act (or some such). Also, it is clear that the subject matter of the this FOI request, by no stretch of the imagination, can be said to be 'an official secret'.

    I read an awful lot about Michael Faraday in the recent past. It seems that he was not satisfied by the results of others unless he could follow their methods and produce the same results himself. That is science.

  • doubting_rich

    “The second reason, which is very relevant in these circumstances, is
    that the data will be misused, manipulated to produce results counter to
    those produced by the original researchers.”

    If that is the case then it is the conclusions of the original research that are at fault, not the “manipulation”. If the manipulation is not legitimate, then peer review and responding papers or letters allow adequate opportunity to challenge them. If new interpretations are legitimate and run counter to the original researchers' results then those results are not robust, and certainly should be challenged.

    This is science. It is not misuse of data, but a very important use.

    Mr Bagley has it right.

  • KC

    Surely another reason for concern is that Phillip Morris would use the data to try and understand why and how teenagers take up smoking, and thus find ways to encourage more to do so.

  • Profmnaim

    When research results are published the researcher, or on behalf of who so ever the research is done and concluded, he or she or organization is obliged to provide available data utilized by researcher to reach conclusion, on demand by seeker,  who so ever, having deposited the requisite fee for information as per existing rules. Data of researches not yet completed and results not published can not be revealed to another researcher unless research completed and published. Information must be provided by the researcher or his /her organization from whom data information is required per rule by the seeker. Seeker may collect data by him/ her/ it self from records files only if required by information provider to do so.

  • Monika Ostensen

    My concern is the same as expressed by KC. Unless one knows why the tobacco company wants these research data and for what purpose, caution is appropriate. Data should be denied in case they want to improve advertising by understanding the psychology of teenagers.

  • Sarinrajashi

    we all want a tobaco free world but we should not hide the data.     Ashi Sarin   former prof &chair ob/gyn

  • Farida Mansurova

    I fully endorse the view of Mr.Richard Smith.

    Farida Mansurova, Tajikistan

  • Francisco Paez

    If the access to the information is denied, how can we defend a posture. Let them punch first (if they are able to do it). Then we punch back.

  • Bimbo Olasode

    Its not automatic for companies to have access to data generated by research institution especially if the had no previous input in its conceptualization. Its not a question of a right: it should be an agreement between the two bodies.

  • CatL

    I stand clearly on the University's side.  There are 2 clear reasons for Philip Morris obtaining this data, 1) for marketing purposes, to improve strategic targeting of their product and 2) for completing their own “research” to use for their own ends.  Transparency in itself does not provide clarity, and it is dangerous to assume that by releasing data, the masses will be better served.  In this case, the release of data is to those most set on profligating a known fatal addictive substance, and focusing on the discussion as one of research ethos missing the key issue at stake.

  • Steffenschickerling

    Philip Morris only wants to sell more cigarettes. And the data might help the company to do this. So how do you feel is the release of the data helps to increase sales? Do you still think the data should be released??

  • Simon Chapman

    Richard, try this on for size. Let's assume a psychiatric research institute had done work on young victims of paedophiles, with all the procedures to protect the identities of those they studied. They produced findings that provided detailed profiles of the sort of child and the sort of circumstances in which child sexual abuse occurred. They further recognised the potential for their data and analysis to be used by perpetrators to better gain access to such children, so they spend a long time thinking about  suitable ways of safeguarding against such abuse. 

    And then a bunch of men with form on child molesting, who let's say had served their debt to society by doing porridge, wanted access to that data and analysis via FOI. I'd be uncomfortable about letting them have it, to say the least.

    The tobacco industry have legendary form on devious ways of getting to kids. I can send you innumeravle internal documents displaying their explicit interest in learning about how to get at kids. And you want them to paw over this stuff?

  • Lucio Patoia

    I completely agree with the view of Mr Smith. It is difficult to criticize drug companies and/or other industries when they keep hidden  data of public interest if academic researchers make the same. Lucio Patoia, M.D.

  • Jkurz

    I agree. It has to work both ways – if we are going to have “freedom of information” than it must apply to all. Universities cannot pick and choose who to release data to, any more than their researchers can insist that they have access to others' data.

  • Myavari

    The company is searching for ways to sell more products.So in my opinion,access to these information is dangerous.M.A.Yavari MD

  • Pascal Diethelm

    The university is right to refuse to give the data, not for the reasons stated, but by invoking the harm-based exemptions of the FOI Act, which covers situations where disclosure of information would be liable to cause harm, with particular reference to Section 38, Health and Safety. This is typically the case in this instance. The UK has ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and has adopted its guidelines, notably  Guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3. Principle 1 of these Guidelines states that “There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests,” adding further “The tobacco industry produces and promotes a product that has been proven
    scientifically to be addictive, to cause disease and death and to give rise to a variety of social ills, including increased poverty.” Philip Morris wants the data because it thinks this will serve its interests. The Univesrity has a moral and legal obligation not to serve the interest of a tobacco company. Providng Philip Morris with information that can help it better understand why young people smoke runs a very high risk of causing harm, as it can very plausibly be assumed that the company, needing replacement smokers and competing with other companies on the youth market – vital for its future survival – will use the data to increase its share of such market, an objective which is antinomic with public health and potentially very harmful. By Section 38 of the FOI Act, the University is not only entitled to refuse data access to Philip Morris, it has a duty to do so.

    As a side remark, Richard Smith incorrectly describes the E&K study as “a study supported in part by the tobacco industry.” The study was totally (100%) supported by the tobacco industry.

  • gene

    Who requests the data is not specifically relevant to the FOI Act, but I believe it should be. Simon mentions child molesters. I'll mention convicted bank robbers or known terrorists. In addition, as Pascal noted, the harm-based exemptions of the FOI Act should apply here, proven in court as they are; the below concerns primarily the US tobacco industry (including Philip Morris);  I believe it's relevant:

    What tobacco companies can do with raw data was well-manifested in the 2004-2005 USA v. Philip Morris trial, particularly in the testimony of Dr. Edwin Bradley, a statistician who as Judge Kessler noted, “is not a medical doctor, epidemiologist, biologist, or toxicologist,” yet testified that the harms of secondhand smoke had not been established, based on his near-fundamentalist reliance on his own unique interpretation of “statistical significance” as an essential criterion. (I even recall the statistician leveraging discrepancies — possibly typos– in 2 incredibly tiny table entries to discount the entire 1200-Page Monograph 13 from NCI.)

    Judge Kessler demolished Bradley's testimony in her final judgement (worthwhile reading at…. Search on “Bradley.”).

    A legislator not as well-versed in the subject as Judge Kessler could conceivably be swayed by a similar use of scientific data by tobacco industry minions–and boy, the industry can hire LEGIONS of them (Dr. Bradley, on the stand for one day, earned over $200,000 in the DOJ trial; many of the industry's witnesses earned close to $1,000/hour).

    After working its wiles, the industry would be well-equipped to pump out a deluge of outraged and outrageous PR and legislative testimony, all based on its armies' own manipulations and interpretations, no matter how erroneous, no matter how aberrant, no matter how idiosyncratic–like Dr. Bradley's testimony. And there would be little in the way of a Judge Kessler (who had studied the material in the case since 1999) to correct them, to put them succinctly into perspective. The sheer deafening volume the industry is capable of producing could completely drown out normal scientific rebuttals. I've seen a considerable number of online commenters repeating Bradley's mantra on statistical significance as if it had any validity whatsoever, until it's almost an online truism. “Better analysis and better argument” convinced Kessler of Bradley's errors; but who else can sit through 5 years of pre-trial data and a 9-month trial?

    So we have a proven track record of the US industry's willingness and ability to manipulate science.  As Judge Kessler noted in her “CONCLUSIONS OF LAW”:

    “Defendants’ efforts to deny and distort the scientific evidence of smoking’s harms are demonstrated by not only decades of press releases, reports, booklets, newsletters, television and radio appearances, and scientific symposia and publications, but also by evidence of their concerted efforts to attack and undermine the studies in mainstream scientific publications such as the Reports of the Surgeon General. The intense public relations activity — consisting of numerous press releases, advertisements, and other false statements — before and particularly after publication of the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, is but one example. This continued despite widespread internal acknowledgment among Defendants’ executives and scientists that smoking causes disease.”

    Kessler, whose decision was recently upheld  by the US Supreme Court, convicted the industry of racketeering, including marketing to children.

    A recent appeals court decision in California's Bullock case found,

    “Phillip Morris knew that the consensus among scientific and medical professionals was that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer and other serious diseases, that its cigarettes contained many carcinogens, and that smokers suffered lung cancer and other serious diseases at rates far greater than nonsmokers. Despite that knowledge, Phillip Morris and other cigarette manufacturers for many years conducted a public campaign designed to obscure and deny the truth. Phillip Morris falsely asserted that there was no consensus in the scientific and medical community concerning the adverse health effects of smoking and that the relationship between smoking and health was unknown. Phillip Morris repeatedly asserted that more research was needed and that it was silently pursuing that research, but avoided sponsoring any research that would reveal the hazards of smoking and went to great lengths to avoid disclosing its own toxicological data. Rather than remove nicotine from its cigarettes as it had the ability to do, Phillip Morris added urea to its cigarettes to enhance the effect of nicotine so as to further exploit its customers' addiction and gain new customers. Its customers included individuals such as Bullock who first began to smoke as youths before July 1, 1969, attracted in part by an aggressive advertising campaign in television, print and other media that was particularly appealing to youths.”

    With a track record like this, are these are the people we want to trust with scientific data? The harm-based exemptions should apply. Especially since a key part of Kessler's verdict was that the defendants were likely to continue their racketeering into the future.

    In deciding on the industry's FOI request, it should be recognized that this is an industry like no other–in many, many ways.

    (Since Mr. Smith mentioned it, Kessler's decision also addresses the industry's funding and subsequent use of the 2003 Enstrom/Kabat paper–which, similarly, manipulated raw data. Again, well worth reading.)

  • Dear Richard, I just mentioned this blog – disapprovingly I have to avow – in a blog about the wider subject of sharing and open access to data in the journal Epidemiology. In short the reason is that it is too easy to surmise that discussion about data is 'The essence of science'. It might be, if people do science with equal weapons, but when strong financial interests come into play – the game is no longer played scientifically.
    All the best, Jan P Vandenbroucke