Philip Morris: Endangering Kids and Academic Ethics

Tobacco giant Philip Morris is doing its best to get its hands on research about teen smoking, and encouraging some UK academics to violate ethical standards along the way.

Here’s the story, by Andrew Hough for the Telegraph: Philip Morris: tobacco firm using FOI laws to access secret academic data

Philip Morris International has tried to force the University of Stirling to hand over secret data into teenage smoking and cigarette packaging gathered over more than a decade.

The manufacturers behind the popular Marlboro brand, have used Freedom of Information laws to [attempt to] gain access [to] about 6000 confidential interviews undertaken with teenagers as young as 13, which discuss their views on smoking and tobacco….

The researchers are rightly fighting the request.

It’s a shocking move on Philip Morris’s part, even just from a PR point of view. To be seen seeking information that the company clearly hopes to use in marketing to children will do nothing to improve anyone’s opinion of the firm or the industry.

But there’s a second wrong, here, and that lies in the attempt to get the researchers in question to violate their obligations to the research subjects — the children and their parents — who participated in the research in question.

When university-based researchers conduct any kind of research on human beings, they are required to adhere to pretty strict standards for research ethics. The most fundamental of those standards has to do with obtaining informed consent from research subjects. Such consent may be obtained only after research subjects are fully informed about the goals of the research, as well as about what sorts of privacy protections they can expect. In the case described here, it is almost certainly the case that the children interviewed, and their parents, would have been assured that while the researchers would of course eventually make public the aggregate results of their research, the raw data — the interview transcripts that Philip Morris seems to be seeking — would of course be kept confidential.

So Philip Morris is asking these researchers to break their promise and to breach the trust placed in them by research subjects. The company is attempting to get the researchers to violate their duty. This puts the company’s behaviour into the same moral category as suborning perjury or intentionally putting another party into a conflict of interest. It’s a bad thing when a company violates its own duties; but it is especially corrosive to work so hard at encouraging other people to violate theirs.

4 comments so far

  1. Cicki on

    It’s stories like this one that really makes me sad thinking about the powers of large international companies and the effects of their immoral behaviour. Although, to expect any less from Philip Morris International (a company indirectly responsible for millions of people dying of tobacco related diseases each year) would be nothing but naive and unrealistic. But what really troubles me is that the kind of behaviour described in the article occurs within all businesses, in all possible areas, all around the globe every day and that only a fraction of those is ever brought to people’s attention. There will always be companies acting in the interest of their own well being rather than of the well being of their fellow citizens and one can therefore only praise the researchers, and others that has been or will find themselves in similar situation, in their resistance against an obvious wrong and together as a society condemning this kind of highly unethical corporate behaviour.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Thanks for your comment. But two points:

      1) It happens that PM is a large international company, but nothing in this story hangs on that. A small, national company could easily have engaged in exactly the same behaviour.

      2) I don’t know of any evidence that would support your very broad claim about how common such behaviour is. You say you’re talking about behaviour that is never brought to people’s attention. How can we claim to know about it, if we don’t know about it?


      • Cicki on

        Thank you, Chris, for your feedback. It is highly appreciated. To reply on your points,

        I fully understand and agree with the fact that a smaller company could just as well engage in the activities described. That is undeniable. Although, a lot of people, including me, feels a certain unease regarding, in particular, the powers many of the larger international companies possesses, such as PM or Coca-Cola that might have a greater incentive and above all much greater resources and capacity to influence governments, organizations or researchers, due to their size.

        For your second point, I do indeed not have any evidence that supports my claim of knowing what is not being known of, and what is more interesting: how can anyone claim to know that anything about life exists or not exist without (which is usually missing) hard and solid evidence. Many times in life we rely on estimations made by others. In my case, solely being an eager student, I’m merely stating from an empirical as well as from a logical view that regarding scandals, in the field of lets say governments, for every story that is being revealed there’s a dozen more where that came from. One can therefore reason that there is an estimated number of unknown cases as well within this area.


  2. Charrolote.chi hu on

    In fact, a great number of companies act like this. They are the large and famous companies, there will not many people will give attention to their business process just think of it is ok although they do something wrong.Their business procedures have been accepted by large number of consumers in the world. So they make use of the image and brand of their company to do something unethical for gaining more profits. Phillip Morris’s behavior bring a negative effect to young generation. They violate the CSR, and we should complaint to the company what they do in order to get better business marketing environment. If we just ignore it, I think this behavior will be more serious.

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