Millions of secret British tobacco industry documents to be released

By Wallace Ravven on May 28, 2004

Flight attendants’ decades-long exposure to potentially deadly secondhand tobacco smoke has now led to a strikingly different sort of exposure. Eight million pages of secret tobacco industry documents describing the activities of British American Tobacco (BAT)—the world’s second largest tobacco company—will be released on the internet.

The Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute (FAMRI) has provided a grant of about $1 million to UCSF to make the full text of the documents publicly available online. The documents provide important insights into tobacco industry activity worldwide, including involvement of multinational tobacco companies in cigarette smuggling.

The UCSF effort is part of the larger Guildford Archiving Project—in collaboration with researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Mayo Clinic—to release BAT documents that are supposed to be available to the public as part of a 1998 settlement against the tobacco industry. Despite agreeing to provide public access, BAT has severely restricted access to the papers, refusing to supply documents electronically, sometimes taking a year or more to process photocopy requests, refusing some requests altogether and apparently even eliminating some of the documents, according to project researchers. The papers are stored in a warehouse the company maintains in Guildford, a London suburb.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, funded by the Wellcome Trust, have requested most of the documents at the Guildford site. They have been collecting and copying documents since 2000. Mayo Clinic and UCSF researchers have ordered more than a million pages of the Guildford papers.

UCSF’s major part of the project—creating public access to the documents—is being undertaken by UCSF’s Library and Center for Knowledge Management in collaboration with the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF.

The first one million pages will be ready for release online in September, 2004.

“The UCSF Library was the first in the world to establish an online collection of tobacco industry documents,” said Karen Butter, University Librarian at UCSF. “The gift from FAMRI releases a private collection of documents with open access to the world wide community.” Butter is also UCSF’s assistant vice chancellor for library services and instructional technology.

“Making these documents available to scientists through the UCSF library is critical, as the information has been hidden from the scientific community for decades,” said Elizabeth A. Kress, executive director of FAMRI. “Scientists can now use this data on the ill effects of tobacco and secondhand tobacco smoke exposure to provide early diagnosis, treatment and hopefully cures of the diseases caused by this addictive product.”

FAMRI was established in 2000 as a result of a settlement of a class action suit against the tobacco industry on behalf of flight attendants exposed to secondhand smoke. FAMRI sponsors scientific and medical research for detection, prevention and treatment of diseases caused by exposure to tobacco smoke.

In the May 29 issue of the British journal Lancet, researchers at the Mayo Clinic report new evidence of BAT practices to discourage or block access to information in documents housed in the Guildford depository, including monitoring all searches and reporting them to BAT legal counsel; rating the sensitivity of requested documents; and even altering some documents.

The BAT documents at Guildford cover the period up to 1995, but researchers who have examined some of the papers have found that many of the documents lay out plans that extend to the present time. An initial review also indicates that BAT’s activities have not changed and that many of the same strategies are still being used.

“The BAT documents have tremendous relevance around the world, particularly in the developing world and in relation to key international issues,” said Stanton Glantz, PhD, professor of medicine and director of UCSF’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

Other funders of the Guildford Archiving Project are Health Canada, Cancer Research UK and the American Hearth Association.
NOTE: Background information on the Guildford Archiving Project (GAP) may be accessed at: Guildford Archiving Project. For more information: British American Tobacco Document Library.