Through the smokescreen, investigating BAT - New Scientist
December 18, 2004
Modified article taken from ASH Daily News
Kelley Lee, co-director of the Centre on Global Change and Health at the
London School of Tropical Medicine, was part of a team of people who,
£1 million grant from the Wellcome trust, undertook the Herculean
obtaining and making publicly available a 7 to 8 million page
internal documents from British American Tobacco, in an article in New
Scientist she talks about her six years spent digging up BAT's dirty
BAT was ordered to make the information publicly available after a US
case and was storing the files in a warehouse in Guildford but the firm
making it hard for people to access them. The idea was to make these
available on the internet for anyone to be able to read.
Over four years the team, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical
Medicine in collaboration with Stanton Glanz at the University of
California, faced a series of obstacles in obtaining this information
made it increasingly difficult for them. The firm also carried out
surveillance on the team at the Guildford site, indexing their database
queries by 'perceived threat' to the firm and monitoring mobile phone
made on site.
But now the task is approaching completion and the information is
to yield valuable information to aid the global public health battle
the tobacco industry.
"I first got involved in this project through researching the effects of
globalisation on human health. While there have been increasing moves to
clamp down on the tobacco industry in many western countries, cigarette
sales are rising fast in the developing world. In poorer countries where
tobacco control is generally a low priority, there are billions of
customers, few of whom are well informed about the dangers of tobacco
These record profits keep the tobacco companies strong", Kelley Lee
The Guildford files came into existence after the State of Minnesota
health insurer sued several cigarette firms in the 1990s. As part of the
eventual settlement the judge ruled that thousands of files were to be
publicly available for 10 years, the ones from US firms at a site in
Minnesota, and the ones from British based BAT.
The Minnesota depository, containing around 40 million pages, was
a firm independent of the tobacco industry, which soon put the
the internet. But the UK depository was left under BAT's control.
The team faced excessive bureaucracy in accessing the Guildford files
discovered that the indexing system being used was ineffective and not
organised in any logical or systematic way. Despite these serious
the team soon uncovered interesting data - invoices from consultants
academics and journalists, correspondence with politicians and
undermine tobacco control policies in countries around the world.
"We soon realised it would be impossible to fully exploit the archive
BAT's restrictive terms of access. It was at this point we decided to
attempt the mammoth task of ordering the entire collection file by
creating our own electronic archive with proper indexing and full
search capacity and put it on the internet."
Request forms had to be filled in, by hand, for 41,000 files. These
then had to be scanned, stored, indexed and filed.
"Our constant concern was that BAT would find out what we were doing and
impose other restrictive measures to stop us. The firm was now taking
year to provide us with photocopied documents. With the depository
down in 2009, the clock was ticking. BAT refused point blank to produce
documents, saying they concerned trade secrets or attorney-client
privilege...we were also concerned that some files appeared to be
In 2000, BAT told an inquiry into the tobacco industry by British MPs
there were 40,784 held at Guildford. But when we visited there were only
40,603 files listed on the database. What had happened to the missing
files? BAT had shown itself willing to destroy damaging internal
in the past. The firm was criticised by the judge in the Minnesota court
case for destroying three cases of files about the health effects of
The task, which had to be carried out under some secrecy, is already
yielding positive results. Last month the journal 'Tobacco Control'
published five of the team's papers describing BAT's complicity in
"But these papers are just the beginning. The archive currently contains
only about one million pages; as more and more files are added it will
at the rate of 40,000 pages per week, and should be complete by 2006.
other groups are continuing to analyse them to see what further