Big Tobacco accused of using FOI to access data on kids’ smoking habits

© Michaela Rehle
British American Tobacco is under fire for trying to gain access to survey data on children’s habits. Australia’s Cancer Council Victoria received the initial request without knowing it came from the tobacco giant’s lawyer.

The survey data, collected over 30 years, included 12- to 17-year-old children’s age, gender, location, habits, access to money and preferred brands, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The data was always collected with parents’ permission, and with the notion that it would be used in the interests of public health, and in order to come up with strategies to tackle underage smoking.

But the cancer council and anti-smoking advocates have reason to believe the information would be used for commercial purposes and to more effectively market cigarettes, the daily reported.

The Australian organization’s director Todd Harper was only told that a lawyer with unknown credentials had requested the data. The council had refused it on the grounds that it was not in the interest of the public.

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The council’s decision was later appealed by the lawyer. Only when this was reported by Fairfax Media did Harper learn of the origins of the information request.

“We had no idea that British American Tobacco was behind the request,” Harper told the Guardian. “All we knew was it was an individual from a law firm who wanted the data. I’m disappointed that the tobacco company wasn’t upfront about its involvement.”

As the request was being processed, the health body was slapped with another Freedom of Information Act request by the same lawyer, who now wanted to obtain similar information, this time relating to adult habits. The institute was allegedly legally compelled to disclose the data.

"If this information were to be used for commercial purposes, for instance to hone or localize tobacco or alcohol marketing and pricing strategies to appeal to the young, provision of such information would be highly detrimental to Victoria's children," Harper said.

When the Australian news source reached out to British American Tobacco, a spokesperson said the request “wasn’t about children,” but “about plain packaging.”

In 2011, Australia became the first country to pass a plain packaging law, requiring all packs to be stripped of branding, leaving only the health warnings.

“We did not seek any personal data or information in respect of children. We’ve asked for figures via a normal freedom of information request because we want to find out if plain packaging, a measure introduced without evidence and that directly affects our industry, is having the impact the Australian government claims it is,” a spokeswoman for British American Tobacco told the Guardian.

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She further said that the company sought out the information to back its view that “instead of Australian youth smoking rates going down because of plain packaging, they’re going up.”

A government review on the effects of plain packaging is ongoing at this time. The spokesperson says the tobacco company’s findings would be relevant to it.

"In this context any such request for an FOI to obtain this information is both reasonable and legitimate. Importantly, in none of the FOI applications was any personal data or information in respect of children or adolescents sought."

The same year the Australians passed the plain packaging law, over in Britain, Phillip Morris International was forced to back down from using FOIs to gain access to interviews with university teenagers on the subject of smoking.

The man behind the plain packaging initiative, who chaired the Australian government’s Expert Committee on the matter, Curtin University Professor of Health Mike Daube, believes it’s a “new” low for Big Tobacco to use FOIs.

"The companies claim that they have no interest in children – yet they are going to extraordinary lengths to access research data about children and tobacco, alcohol and drugs,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

A further problem the professor wants to call attention to is the endless and cumbersome legal battles, which serve to confuse the issue and waste time.

"If Big Tobacco can use FOI to harass a cancer council, what is to stop them using FOI to obtain information from any researchers employed by universities, or to tie them up in endless legal battles?"