Health claims about alcohol are back in the news, but this time, the headlines are about the scientists who make those claims — not the actual data.
Recently published investigations by The New York Times, Wired and Stat paint a disturbing picture about the way alcohol companies are trying to influence scientific understanding, and thus public perception, of alcohol as a health tonic.
These stories reveal that officials at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) aggressively courted alcohol executives to fund a $100 million clinical trial on “moderate drinking” with the expectation that this study would probably conclude that it is safe and lowers the risk of disease.
Alcohol executives were allowed to help pick the scientists and preview the trial’s design, reports the Times, while Wired reported on how dependent the NIAAA is on industry funding to complete the expensive, long-term study. Finally, Stat has a story about how scientists who published unflattering research about the alcohol industry were verbally abused by NIAAA officials and cut off from funding.
Even though prestigious alcohol scientists may insist on their independence, studies show that research funded by the food industry is four to eight times more likely to conclude something that financially benefits the sponsor. Industry-funded research also tends to suppress negative data. When pharmaceutical companies fund studies, the findings are less likely to be published than research funded by other sources.
It adds up to a concerted effort by alcohol companies to make sure customers keep buying and drinking their products ― or even to increase people’s alcohol intake ― by tying alcohol to better health outcomes. And if industry-funded trials can’t convince Americans that their products are good for them, these sponsorships can churn out junk science that muddies the scholarship on alcohol, food or drugs, leaving consumers confused and awash in contradictory news headlines.
“The obvious conflict of interest is that the funder of this research stands to benefit when the research comes out with findings that encourage more people to use its products,” said David Jernigan, a professor at the Department of Health Law, Policy and Management at the Boston University School of Public Health. “It’s kind of the whole reason we have an independent science sector ― to wall it off from conflicts of interest like this.”