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Funding controversy ends study of alcohol, health Major Study of Drinking Will Be Shut Down

Richmond Times-Dispatch - 6/16/2018

The extensive government trial was intended to settle an age-old question about alcohol and diet: Does a daily cocktail or beer really protect against heart attacks and stroke?

To find out, the National Institutes of Health gave scientists $100 million to fund a global study comparing people who drink with those who don't. Its conclusions could have enshrined alcohol as part of a healthy diet.

As it turned out, much of the money for the study came from the alcohol industry. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that officials at the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse, part of the NIH, had solicited that funding from alcohol manufacturers, a violation of federal policy.

On Friday, an advisory panel to Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, recommended that the trial be stopped altogether. Shortly afterward, Collins agreed.

While the advisory group was not asked to determine whether NIH officials violated federal policy, investigators did find that there "was frequent email correspondence" among the staff of the alcohol institute, outside scientists and alcohol industry representatives.

"The early and frequent engagement with industry representatives calls into question the impartiality of the process and thus casts doubt that the scientific knowledge gained from the study would be actionable or believable," said the advisory committee's report.

The contacts by staff with industry officials and others took place before the Foundation for the NIH, which has the authority to seek donations for government studies, was given permission to raise private funding for the trial. Investigators also found that officials at the alcohol institute "hid facts" from other staff and from the foundation.

Officials at the alcohol institute lobbied beer and liquor companies to help fund the $100 million trial, The Times reported in March. Scientists were flown to industry meetings where they described the proposed trial and suggested that the results would support moderate drinking.

NIH policy prohibits employees from soliciting, suggesting or requesting donations, funds or other resources to support the institutes' activities. After The Times revealed the industry's financial interests in the study, Collins ordered an internal investigation into whether that policy had been violated.

Anheuser Busch InBev, one of the five industry sponsors, pulled its $15 million in funding from the study last week, saying the controversy had undermined the trial's credibility.

The study was to examine the effects of alcohol on adults ages 50 and older who were at high risk for heart disease. Half were to be asked to consume a single serving of alcohol of their choice every day, while the other half were to abstain. The goal was to follow the two groups for six years on average to see if moderate drinkers have fewer heart attacks and strokes, and lower odds of death and diabetes.

But on Friday, NIH investigators were extremely critical of the trial's design, suggesting that the investigators' interactions with the alcohol industry "appear to intentionally bias the framing of the scientific premise in the direction of demonstrating a beneficial health effect of moderate alcohol consumption."


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