Philip Morris: Endangering kids and academic ethics

Violating your duty is bad, but encouraging others to violate theirs may be even worse.

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(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty)

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

Writes the Telegraph‘s Andrew Hough in “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.

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