Research raises concerns over relationship between major US research institution and the alcohol industry
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A new study has uncovered extensive interactions between one of the world’s leading funders of alcohol research and alcohol industry groups, sparking concern about the industry’s influence on science and public health policy.
Dr Gemma Mitchell, now of the University of Stirling, and Professor Jim McCambridge at the University of York, analysed close to 5,000 pages of email correspondence, obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The correspondence was sent between 43 staff members of the U.S National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and representatives of 15 alcohol industry groups – including producers and trade associations – between 2013 and 2020.
The analysis focused on 12 leaders at the NIAAA, including both current and former staff, and five key contacts in the alcohol industry. The latter include representatives from two alcohol producers (AB InBev and Diageo), two trade associations (the Beer Institute and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States [DISCUS]), and the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD).
Professor McCambridge said: “The depth of the relationships between NIAAA senior leaders and key alcohol industry contacts uncovered here is disturbing. The study findings provide examples of alcohol public health science being opposed rather than championed by NIAAA leaders, at least in their direct communications with industry.”
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Key industry actors asked NIAAA leaders for help on science and policy issues. At times, NIAAA leaders heavily criticised public health research and researchers in correspondence with industry.
Dr Mitchell, who is based at Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing and Health, said: “Discussions were facilitated by the willingness of NIAAA leaders to meet with industry and have other informal contacts, as well as NIAAA leadership presence at industry-sponsored and other events.
“Key industry actors asked NIAAA leaders for help on science and policy issues. At times, NIAAA leaders heavily criticised public health research and researchers in correspondence with industry.”
The new study, which is published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, also raises the problem of the “revolving door”, with some NIAAA leaders subsequently moving on to work for industry.
Dr Mitchell added: “This is one way in which close relationships are forged between NIAAA leadership and key industry groups, allowing for the free flow of privileged information and other questionable practices.”
The research team used publicly available data whenever possible to confirm any information contained in the emails and say their findings add to other recent studies that identify the long-term effects of industry influence on alcohol science.
Dr Mitchell said: “Ongoing relationships between NIAAA leaders and the alcohol industry meant that industry representatives could access privileged information on a wide range of topics, from the US Dietary Guidelines to alcohol and cancer.
“Our findings are hugely concerning, and we hope the NIAAA and the National Institute of Health (NIH) will regard this report not as presenting a public relations challenge to be managed, but as posing a set of major scientific challenges to which it must rise.”
An accompanying editorial by Thomas Babor, Editor of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, underlines the importance of monitoring how the alcohol industry funds research projects and how it is involved in scientific activities.
Babor writes: “What is described in the Mitchell and McCambridge article and related evaluations, provide strong evidence that alcohol industry influence has penetrated the highest levels of the NIAAA in ways that threaten public health at both a national and global level.”
The research paper ‘Interactions between the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the alcohol industry: evidence from email correspondence 2013-2020’ can be accessed via the Journal’s website.