Next time you read a story about health research on alcohol, keep your wits about you. That’s the message from a new study that’s found a “worrying” increase in the amount of research funded by alcohol companies, including some studies that make claims about the health benefits of alcohol. Clearly, there’s a conflict of interest going on here.
Reporting in the European Journal of Public Health, scientists at the University of York in the UK sifted through thousands of studies about drinking alcohol and found there has been a 56 percent increase in research funded by alcohol companies or affiliated trade organizations since 2009.
Take, for example, the headlines from 2016 that proclaimed a "pint of beer a day could protect you from heart attacks.” The news stories were based on a peer-reviewed scientific study that found moderate beer drinking might hold some protective effects for the cardiovascular system. Many articles, however, failed to mention that the study was funded by an Italian beer trade association.
This kind of practice could be widespread, says the new study. While hunting for this kind of practice, the team identified over 11,000 studies that were funded directly by alcohol companies. As is standard practice, this is always mentioned in the study’s “acknowledgments” section or “conflicts/declarations of interest” statement. However, they also encountered thousands of instances where the study was funded by organizations that are covertly affiliated to the alcohol.
“Our study identified a worrying trend – while there has been a steep decline in the alcohol industry conducting its own research on health, at the same time there has been an increase in the alcohol industry funding such research by providing financial support to researchers or via alcohol-related organizations,” co-author Dr Su Golder, from the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, said in a statement.
“This allows alcohol companies to exploit a ‘transparency loophole’ as many people assume these organizations are charities and don’t realize the connection to the industry."
While receiving funding from a relevant industry for scientific research doesn’t necessarily damage the integrity of the findings, it does raise the potential for a conflict of interest to creep in. It’s also noteworthy that most consumers hear about this research through the media who are generally pretty poor at reporting where the funding came from.
“While researchers are meant to declare funders in peer-reviewed research publications, this often doesn’t happen and we don’t get the level of transparency we should have,” explained Professor Jim McCambridge, co-author of the study from the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, added.
The researchers suspect that the scale of the alcohol industry's involvement in the research they uncovered is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. Industry involvement in research is nothing new. There’s a seemingly endless reel of examples where the food industry has directly funded scientific studies about their relevant products. In one example, Welch Foods Inc supported a study in 2016 that found grape juice helps to improve the driving of mothers with pre-teen children.
“It is well known that by sponsoring research pharmaceutical and tobacco companies successfully conspired to subvert the scientific evidence-base in order to influence policy for decades and so, while more research is needed, the scale, nature and breadth of the alcohol industry’s influence on scientific research provides cause for concern,” added Professor McCambridge.