Federal agency scrutinized over potential alcohol industry links

Federal agency scrutinized over potential alcohol industry links
National Institutes of Health via Wikimedia Commons

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is coming under scrutiny over communications with the alcohol industry.

The National Institutes of Health, which includes the alcohol institute, is looking into whether any of its workers broke federal rules prohibiting employees from asking for money when they met with alcohol companies to discuss an upcoming government study on the potential benefits of moderate drinking, according to a New York Times investigation.

A separate investigation in the digital publication Stat found that the alcohol institute’s director, George Koob, may have killed a study that did not look favorable to the alcohol industry.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, will also get outside experts to weigh in on the design of the study, The New York Times said.

The Times investigation found that staff members of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism met with members of the alcohol industry multiple times in 2013 and 2014 to potentially get financial backing for a clinical trial looking into whether drinking might have health benefits.

These meetings were before the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the branch of the government that is allowed to raise funds from private donors that can fund research, became involved, the Times found. National Institutes of Health employees are not supposed to engage in direct fundraising, although there is a donations page on the alcoholism institute’s website where “individuals and organizations can contribute to the NIAAA gift fund.”

Liquor companies Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, Carlsberg, Diageo and Pernod Ricard pledged $67.7 million, through the foundation, toward the $100 million cost of the study, the Times said.

Neither the National Institutes of Health nor the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

Most people know that excessive and binge drinking can cause a number of health problems, including cancer, memory problems, violence and unintentional injuries. Some research suggests that moderate drinking — a glass of wine or beer or a mixed drink a day for women, two for men — is associated with longer life and has some heart benefits. Much of that, though, relies on study participants’ ability to recall how much they’ve had or is based on other associational research. There is limited clinical trial evidence of why moderate drinking may be a good thing.

The study — fueled in large part by industry funds channeled through the foundation — according to the New York Times, is the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health Trial. It is currently recruiting 7,800 people from around the world to participate in a randomized control trial. Some of them will not drink, and some will drink moderately, potentially putting them at risk for cardiovascular issues. It would follow participants for six years and be the first long-term trial of its kind.

Koob told the Times that he was unaware of the meetings with industry representatives, which would have happened before he took office in January 2014. He said industry sponsorship wouldn’t compromise the findings of the study: “We do things right at NIH.”

A separate investigation by Stat suggested that Koob said in 2015 that his agency would “pull back” from research that showed an association between the marketing of alcohol and underage drinking. In an email reviewed by Stat, Koob reassured a leader at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, an alcohol industry trade group, that “for the record. This will NOT happen again.”

Koob told Stat that his email was prompted by “critical evaluation” of a study and that it “was to convey that I had no intention of supporting research that was not of the highest scientific quality. NIAAA funds a vast amount of research on underage drinking, which is among the Institute’s top research priorities.”