Bev­er­age in­dus­try money used for al­co­hol study

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - COMMENTARY - — St. Louis Post-Dis­patch

When lead­ing al­co­holic bev­er­age mak­ers pay the bulk of $100 mil­lion for a study to de­ter­mine whether a daily drink leads to bet­ter health, can the re­search re­sults be­liev­ably be free of bias? The Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health has se­ri­ously dam­aged its cred­i­bil­ity as one of the world’s lead­ing med­i­cal re­search cen­ters by ob­tain­ing in­dus­try fund­ing for such a study.

The NIH is an un­likely agency to be em­broiled in a real-vs.-fake news con­tro­versy. More than $30 bil­lion in tax dol­lars are in­vested an­nu­ally in the health in­sti­tutes, where the world’s pre­em­i­nent sci­en­tists and physi­cians ex­plore the bound­aries of biomed­i­cal re­search. The na­ture of their work is to use sci­en­tific meth­ods to tease out fact from hy­pothe­ses or un­founded as­ser­tions.

When the na­tion is rid­dled with doubt about real and phony in­for­ma­tion and the rel­a­tive mer­its of sci­en­tific find­ings, it is alarm­ing that this highly re­garded sci­ence agency would col­lude with donors who clearly want to see an out­come fa­vor­able to their fu­ture sales. Even if the find­ings aren’t tainted, from a pub­lic per­spec­tive, the fund­ing source de­stroys any sem­blance of ob­jec­tiv­ity.

The na­tion needs the NIH to use its scarce re­sources to fight for an­swers to dev­as­tat­ing health is­sues. The al­co­hol in­dus­try has no stake in safe­guard­ing pub­lic health. No one faults the in­dus­try for try­ing to sell its prod­uct, but the NIH shouldn’t be com­plicit in it.

The NIH is dou­bly cul­pa­ble for hav­ing courted the in­dus­try to fund a study on whether a daily al­co­holic drink is med­i­cally rec­om­mend­able to pro­mote good health. The Na­tional In­sti­tute on Al­co­hol Abuse and Al­co­holism, which should have steered clear of the study, is in­stead over­see­ing it.

An­heuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, Di­a­geo, Pernod Ri­card and Carls­berg con­trib­uted $67.7 mil­lion to the study. Their con­tri­bu­tions were routed through the Foun­da­tion for the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health, an in­de­pen­dent non­profit that raises funds to sup­port NIH re­search.

NIH pol­icy is clear about re­searchers avoid­ing fi­nan­cial con­flicts of in­ter­est and main­tain­ing ob­jec­tiv­ity. At the same time, though, the White House and Congress con­tinue to ques­tion the va­lid­ity of sci­ence and keep a choke hold on fund­ing. The in­dus­try par­tic­i­pa­tion in this study seems more likely to add to law­maker skep­ti­cism and lead to fu­ture fund­ing cuts.

Of­fi­cials of the NIH and NIAAA knew these ac­tions would com­pro­mise their in­tegrity and tried to hide it, but The New York Times found con­tra­dic­tory ev­i­dence through in­ter­views and the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act.

The NIH di­rec­tor said the agency will ex­am­ine the ef­fort to de­ter­mine whether it vi­o­lated fed­eral pol­icy. Clearer poli­cies and stricter en­force­ment would help pro­tect this valu­able agency’s hard-won rep­u­ta­tion in the fu­ture.

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