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.