Did Big Alcohol Fund Study On Benefits Of Moderate Drinking?

By Kelly Burch 03/23/18

Alcohol companies may have provided millions in donations for favorable results on the long-term federal study.

two businessmen shaking hands

Many have long extolled the virtues of a glass of wine with dinner or an alcoholic beverage at the end of a long day, but science hasn’t been able to back up the claim of any health benefits from regular consumption of alcohol.

A long-term global study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is looking to change that, by testing the hypothesis that drinking an alcoholic beverage each day can reduce cardiovascular disease. 

However, the merit of the study is now under question after a New York Times investigation found that the NIH pursued donations from five major alcohol companies in order to fund the majority of the study. 

“This must have seemed like a dream come true for industry. Of course they would pay for it,” Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, told the New York Times. “They’re admitting the trial is designed to provide a justification for moderate drinking. That’s not objective science.”

The Times investigation, published on March 17, found that the NIH presented the study to representatives from alcohol companies at private meetings in 2013 and 2014.

Five major alcohol companies—Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, Carlsberg, Diageo and Pernod Ricard—then pledged a collective $67.7 million to fund the study, which is estimated to cost $100 million in total. The donations were given through the Foundation for the NIH, a nongovernmental organization that supports NIH research. 

The Times allowed Dr. Siegel to check out slides from the presentation—after which he concluded that the study “is not public health research—it’s marketing.”

Following the investigation, the NIH announced that it will look into whether the appeals to alcohol companies violated the organization’s policy, which prohibits employees from soliciting donations. 

“While NIH officials and scientists routinely discuss and present information on proposed collaborations with outside scientists and other members of the public, NIH policy prohibits employees from soliciting donations of funds or other resources to the NIH or any of its components,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, said in a statement.

However, the Collins stood by the validity of the study, which has nearly 8,000 participants around the globe. 

“I believe the scientific goals of the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health Trial are worth pursuing,” he said. Although he was “concerned” about the revelations that NIH officials met with the alcohol industry, Collins insisted that the design and scientific accuracy of the study were not compromised. 

To be sure, he said that independent experts from an advisory committee will review the study’s design and methodology. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.