Big tobacco is watching: British American Tobacco's surveillance and information concealment at the Guildford depository

Lancet. 2004 May 29;363(9423):1812-9. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(04)16309-5.


The 1998 State of Minnesota legal settlement with the tobacco industry required British American Tobacco (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. Starkly different from the Minnesota depository, at the Guildford depository it is extraordinarily more difficult to access, search, and obtain requested documents. BAT's approach to running the Guildford depository, in our view, amounts to concealing what is supposed to be public information. 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, then 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 em leader ". 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. 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. 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.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Access to Information / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Databases as Topic
  • Disclosure / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Minnesota
  • Records / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Tobacco Industry / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • United Kingdom