Leading public-health scientists writing in this week's issue of THE LANCET are calling for changes in the management of British American Tobacco's (BATs) UK information depository. This follows a detailed investigation which has highlighted how public access to industry records has been hampered by tight surveillance and inadequate search facilities at the depository in Guildford, UK.
The 1998 State of Minnesota legal settlement with the tobacco industry required BAT to provide public access to the 8 million pages housed in its document depository located near Guildford, UK, and to any company documents sent to the Minnesota depository. While the Minnesota depository is managed by an independent third party, BAT's Guildford depository is run by the company itself. The authors comment how, 'starkly different from the Minnesota depository, at the Guildford depository it is extraordinarily more difficult to access, search, and obtain requested documents'.
Lead author Richard D Hurt from the Mayo Clinic comments: "BAT's approach to running the depository, in our view, amounts to concealing what is supposed to be public information contained in the Guildford depository. Newly produced BAT documents from subsequent litigation, dating from 1996 to 2001 disclose the company's efforts to gather intelligence on visitors and their work. We believe that BAT has acted to make access to information more difficult by delaying document production requested by public visitors and refusing to supply requested documents in an electronic format despite, in the company's own words, the establishment of "big time imaging" capabilities at the Guildford depository. During testimony in 2000, BAT Chairman Martin Broughton stated to the UK House of Commons Health Select Committee that the scanning and subsequent placement of the Guildford collection online "would be an extreme effort for absolutely no purpose whatsoever", stating that "there is no indication to me that serious researchers are showing any interest in the papers . . .". New documents show that not only did the company recognise the importance of research undertaken by visitors, but also invested substantial resources and undertook numerous scanning projects during that time".
Dr Hurt adds: "The vulnerability of this important resource is demonstrated by the decreased number of files listed on the electronic database and the inadvertent deletion of an audio tape housed at the depository. With regard to intelligence gathering, BAT's law firm reported to BAT on the daily activities of depository visitors to BAT. Despite assurances to the contrary, these depository visitor reports show that BAT apparently tracked the database searches of a visitor. The company also tracked the physical movement of visitors and, in at least one instance, observed and noted the personal mobile phone use of a visitor. These activities raise ethical issues about BAT and/or its solicitors observing the work of lawyers and researchers representing health and government bodies. Given this new evidence, we assert that BAT is incapable of operating its depository in the spirit of the Minnesota settlement and should, therefore, be divorced from its operation. Accordingly, we recommend that the company provide its entire document collection electronically to interested parties thus allowing greater access to the public-health community as has been done in the USA".
In an accompanying Commentary (p 1746), Jeff Collin, Kelley Lee, and Anna B Gilmore from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine accuse BAT of operating the Guildford Depository as a 'hostile archive, providing minimum compliance with the letter of the Minnesota agreement while disregarding its intent.'