A major NIH-funded study hopes to settle whether moderate drinking can be good for the heart. The work is now facing serious ethical concerns over outside funding from the alcohol industry.
Photo: Jason Koerner (Getty Images)

Serious ethical questions have loomed over a large, ongoing study overseen by the National Institutes of Health. The research, largely funded by the alcohol industry, intends to find out whether moderate drinking can be good for us. Following revelations that scientists and officials involved with the project reached out to alcohol companies in hopes of obtaining funding before the study began, the agency is getting ready to perform its own investigation.

As first reported by The New York Times, scientists and officials from the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism tried to solicit donations from industry representatives several times throughout 2013 and 2014 for their planned trial, both through sales pitches made at conventions and in more private meetings.

From the New York Times article:

The documents and interviews show that the institute waged a vigorous campaign to court the alcohol industry, paying for scientists to travel to meetings with executives, where they gave talks strongly suggesting that the study’s results would endorse moderate drinking as healthy.

An N.I.A.A.A. official, now retired, said she followed up after the presentations with appeals for money, telling industry executives the research could not be done without their support.

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The six-year trial, which began last year, will recruit 7,800 adults aged 50 and older from various corners of the globe and randomly assign them to become moderate drinkers (defined as having one daily drink of their choice) or abstain completely. Researchers will then track how each group fares health and heart-wise; specifically, which group has more heart attacks, strokes, and deaths over six years.

Ultimately, the study, led by Kenneth J. Mukamal, a Harvard associate professor of medicine, is expected to cost a total of $100 million, with more than 60 percent of its funding having been footed by donations made by five of the largest alcohol companies in the world, including Heineken and Anheuser-Busch InBev. The donations were made to a foundation set up by the NIH to raise private funding.

Mukamal told The Times last year that he was at first unaware of how the study was even being funded, and that he had no discussions about the study’s planning with any alcohol representatives. Other scientists involved in the study have previously received money for speaking at industry-funded conferences, or conducted research at institutes that have received industry funding.

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NIH director Francis Collins has stood behind the scientific value and integrity of the study itself, but said he was “concerned” about the officials and scientists’ reported behavior.

“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,” Collins said in a statement, reported by the New York Times.

Collins plans to have the agency investigate whether officials have violated these policies, as well as ask the advisory committee of outside experts overlooking the study to review its methodology and design.

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There’s a good, if sometimes contradictory, amount of observational research suggesting that moderate drinking can provide benefits like a longer lifespan, when compared to total abstinence. By that same token, though, there’s plenty of studies showing that industry-funded research tends to have a much more positive spin, and even inspires misleading public policy, than work that is independently funded.

[The New York Times]