Long-concealed British tobacco industry documents released online

By Wallace Ravven

UCSF released online today (October 26) a million pages of formerly secret documents belonging to the world’s second largest tobacco company, British American Tobacco (BAT). The papers, acquired legally but in the face of many BAT obstructions and delays, include documents related to international cigarette smuggling, BAT’s efforts to thwart World Health Organization anti-smoking initiatives, and the on-going trial in the U.S. against six tobacco companies on federal racketeering charges for deceiving the public about cigarette smoking hazards.

The British American Tobacco Documents Archive provides insights into tobacco industry activity worldwide, including aggressive strategies to gain increasing shares of the cigarette market in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, and particularly in developing countries. The collection includes papers related to BAT’s sponsorship of Formula One car racing in China, the world’s largest cigarette market. More than six million pages will be released on the internet over the next three years.

The UCSF effort is part of the Guildford Archiving Project undertaken with researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and the Mayo Clinic to obtain, digitize, index and publicly release the papers.

The documents were supposed to be available to the public as part of a 1998 settlement against the tobacco industry, but BAT has restricted access, refusing to supply documents electronically and sometimes taking a year or more to process photocopy requests. BAT continues to withhold some of the documents, according to the researchers, and nearly 200 files have gone unaccountably “missing” from the warehouse where they are stored in Guildford, a city in southern England.

The UCSF Library and Center for Knowledge Management, in collaboration with the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF, has created procedures to process the six million paper documents and developed a system for online search and display. Once online, the documents will be freely and permanently available for public health officials, policy makers, scholars and citizens to examine.

“The UCSF Library was the first in the world to establish an online collection of tobacco industry documents, numbering now more than 40 million pages,” said Karen Butter, University Librarian at UCSF. “These BAT documents have been hidden from view for decades. We believe that they will provide valuable insights into the operations of the tobacco company and their research into smoking and health.”

UCSF acknowledges a grant of $1 million from Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute to open the BAT document store to the world. The Institute was established in September 2000 as a result of a settlement of a class action suit brought by non-smoking flight attendants against the tobacco industry for the diseases caused from their exposure to second hand tobacco smoke in airline cabins.

The Wellcome Trust, also a major funder of the effort, awarded the LSHTM one million pounds to acquire the documents.

“The success of this hugely complicated project means that the inner secrets of the BAT company files are now becoming freely available to health researchers around the world,” said Dr. Tony Woods, head of Medical Humanities at the Wellcome Trust. “It is an absolute treasure trove which is already revealing fascinating nuggets of information.”

The BAT documents that are the focus of the Guildford project generally 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.

“More than any other single collection, the BAT documents reveal the reach and corrupting influence of the tobacco industry in the developing world,” said Stanton Glantz, PhD, professor of medicine and director of UCSF’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. “Making this collection available on the internet will help transform the tobacco issue in these countries just as the American documents have here.  No wonder BAT has been obstructionist in making them available.”

Support for the archive has also come from Health Canada, Cancer Research UK and the American Heart Association.

The new online archive can be accessed at Online Archive

For more information on the project’s history: Project’s History

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