Following on from a post a few weeks ago about the apparent link between alcohol consumption and living into your 90s, I ran across news this week of additional research into the relationship between alcohol and health. And this news – unlike the earlier story – isn’t particularly pretty.
Mind you, the story isn’t troubling from a health standpoint. Instead, it is the ethics that are problematic.
According to a report by the New York Times, in late 2015 the National Institutes of Health announced the award of funding for a $100 million study called the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health Trial. As you might expect from its name, the study aimed to explore the links between moderate alcohol consumption and reduced risks of heart disease and stroke (and possibly other reasonably common ailments). So far so good.
But what you might not expect from the name of the trial – or the fact that it was being funded by a government agency – is who was actually footing the bill (i.e., who was funding the funding). And who do you think might have been willing to fund the study? According to NYT reporting, “Anheuser Busch InBev, Heineken, and other alcohol companies are picking up most of the tab.”
So how did large alcohol beverage producers come to fund a government study into the potential benefits of moderate alcohol consumption? And – to ask the obvious question – doesn’t this present more than a hint of potential conflict of interest?
As reported by the NYT, officials from the National Institutes of Health have stated multiple times that they never discussed the planning of the study with alcohol industry representatives. But those statements don’t jibe with records obtained by the NYT through a Freedom of Information Act request made to the NIH, or with other corroborating evidence.
Instead, the evidence paints a picture of NIH personnel making a concerted effort to facilitate meetings between the scientists wishing to conduct the study and alcohol industry executives. Perhaps even more troubling, NYT research suggests that at those same meetings – and in presentations made to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, The Beer Institute and various industry executives – these same scientists’ remarks suggested that the study’s results would show that moderate drinking reduces health risks.
Yep, you read that right. The scientists hadn’t done the study yet. But they apparently told potential funding sources (who would benefit greatly from a particular result) that the outcome of the to-be-performed study would be favorable to their interests. And – as also reported by the NYT – the funding sources were also told that the study wouldn’t be possible without their financial support.
According to the NIH, its mission is to “seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”
Let’s think about that for a moment. The mission of the NIH is to pursue knowledge that will enhance health, lengthen life and reduce illness and disability. Scientists are already quite certain that excessive consumption of alcohol does – in fact – degrade health, shorten life and increase the incidence of illness and disability. But of course excessive consumption of alcohol by consumers is also in the best interests (at least in the short term) of the alcohol industry. In fact, excessive consumer consumption is much better for the industry financially than moderate consumption – again at least in the short term.
So now we’ve got a study that aims to look at the benefits of moderate – as opposed to excessive – consumption. But what’s to stop those funding the study from applying pressure on the researchers to tweak the results to support increased levels of consumption? Maybe change the definition of “moderate”? Nothing but the integrity of the researchers and their work – but of course that integrity is questionable if these researchers are willing to telegraph to the funding sources the outcome of the study before its even begun.
If tobacco companies offered to fund a study into the health benefits of their products, wouldn’t we be justifiably skeptical of the results? [In fact, we know that tobacco companies have tried to do similar things for years.]
Let me be clear. I am fan of this industry, and I actually hope that there is a meaningful link between moderate alcohol consumption and reduced cardiovascular disease.
But I’m also just naive enough to think that important medical research funded by the government shouldn’t be influenced by the profit motives of private companies. [The NIH is apparently looking into whether health officials at the NIH violated government policies or regulations by asking alcohol industry representatives to fund the study – so perhaps the HoochLawyer isn’t so simpleminded after all.]
But what about the industry executives? Did they really think that the funding for the study wouldn’t be discovered? Did they not care?