GuardianBritish American Tobacco was yesterday accused by academics of doctoring one of the sensitive internal documents it agreed to make public and impeding access to millions of pages of others stored in a fortress-like depository in Guildford, Surrey.
In spite of strong criticism four years ago by the Commons health select committee, BAT has made it harder, not easier, to find and obtain copies of its documents, researchers say in the Lancet medical journal.
BAT is accused of altering documents, refusing access to some on the unchallengeable grounds that they are "privileged" and failing to explain why 180 files have gone missing in the last few years.
The academics have evidence that at least one document has been tampered with, they say. It referred to the company's strategy of marketing to "illiterate low-income 16-year-olds in the Middle East". The age had been crudely changed by hand to 18 in some places.
Researchers tracked down the document among the Guildford files after they found a reference to it in the US tobacco litigation depository in Minnesota, which has the papers from other companies but also some more recent ones from BAT. This made mention of the sensitivity of the marketing strategy paper "due to references to marketing to illiterate low-income 16-year-olds".
Yesterday academics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine went public on a project to obtain a copy of every paper in the Guildford depository and put them on a dedicated website, indexed to allow searches of all the documents by names, dates and topics.
At the moment there is no document index - only a list of more than 40,000 files from many different offices containing between 6.5m and 8m pages.
BAT is under an obligation to keep the depository open only until 2009, but the Guildford archiving project will ensure the documents are permanently available. It is being carried out by the London school, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the Mayo Clinic nicotine research programme, based in St Paul, Minnesota, and has attracted £2m of funding from the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and others.
"The clock is ticking," said Kelley Lee, director of the centre for global change in health at the London school. "If we hadn't intervened with this project the documents would never have been revealed." Much of BAT's focus is now in the developing world, where rising tobacco consumption gives great cause for concern.
The researchers are having to wait as long as a year for photocopies of the files, in spite of evidence that BAT has formidable scanning capacity at the depository.
They have filled out more than 40,000 forms by hand to order copies of all the 8m pages BAT admitted to having at the select committee hearing. BAT has said it will take until October 2005 to deliver them. The researchers report that they are watched by video camera and through a two-way mirror while they are in the depository.
"BAT has provided access to this depository in the way we might expect Al Capone to provide access to the Criminal Record Bureau: grudgingly and making it as hard as possible to actually access and use the material there. The chances of free and fair access to the entire collection are minimal," said Stanton A Glantz of UCSF.
"Once our work is finished anyone in the world will have instant access to these documents without worrying about having BAT spying on them."
Monique Muggli and colleagues from the Mayo Clinic report in the Lancet on their experience of using the Guildford depository.
Unlike the Minnesota depository, which is administered by an independent third party and where access is unimpeded, the Guildford store is run by BAT. Access is limited to six hours a day, instead of 10 in Minnesota, and must be arranged months in advance.
The researchers say they are concerned that 181 files are now missing from the 40,784 reported by BAT to the select committee in January 2000. They also note that an audio-tape recording of a BAT marketing conference has been wiped on one side.
On the tape a BAT executive advised colleagues that "... if you just say this is a cheap cigarette for you dirt-poor little black farmers ... they're not going to go for it," while another commented: "We could sell them to the Palestinians if we made the plastic hard enough that you could rip the end off and put your shells in them."
Yesterday BAT said it had no problems with the website scheme "because the company has nothing to hide". Michael Prideaux, corporate and regulatory affairs director, said he doubted whether the old documents would shed much new light on smoking and health. "If there was a 'smoking gun', presumably someone would have found it by now," he said.