January 29, 2019

Alcohol-funded research: believe it or not?

alcohol industry funding research

The cancellation of a US $100 million-dollar study on alcohol in 2018, due to it being ‘tainted by funding appeals to the alcohol industry’, raises major concerns about conflict of interest in research funding.1

The research aimed to determine the effect of moderate drinking on cardiovascular health. However, a New York Times journalist revealed that when seeking funding for the research from potential alcohol industry donors, fund-raisers ‘suggested that the results would support moderate drinking’ and provide evidence for ‘alcohol to be recommended as part of a healthy diet’.2

And therein lies the dilemma.

Alcohol is legal, and many consumers seek to make informed decisions about if, and how much, they choose to drink.
Consumers often rely on the research behind things like warning labels, public information campaigns, and health advice from peak bodies to inform them about potential harms from a product.

But it’s difficult for a person to make an informed choice with incomplete, or misleading, information about the product.

Problems with research design

Public health experts contacted for the New York Times article were very critical of fund-seekers suggesting that the results would be favourable before the research had been completed.
There was also heavy criticism about the design of the trial. For example, it would have excluded the participants most likely to experience harms.

But, perhaps the most important criticism was that the study was designed to ignore one of the most significant long-term harms from drinking – its carcinogenic properties.

Alcohol is a known carcinogen – ‘a substance that causes cancer in the body’.3

Alcohol is linked to cancer in the mouth and the throat, colorectal system, liver, breast, and pancreas.4 It is one of the top four major risk factors for non-communicable diseases identified by the World Health Organization.5

The now-cancelled study would have distracted people from the undisputed fact that alcohol increases the risk for multiple types of cancer.

Confirmation bias

Studies about the supposed benefits of alcohol crop up regularly in news cycles, so it’s worth asking why these headlines are so appealing to news outlets and their readers. In part for much the same reason that smokers were receptive to ‘information’ that cast doubt on the link between smoking and cancer.6

When people believe something, or want something to be true, they’re more likely to believe information that confirms their point of view. Most Australians (77%) are current drinkers,7 and are probably happier reading that a drink a day is good for their heart than information about how alcohol increases the risk of multiple cancers. This poses a real public health problem.

Something being desirable does not make it true – and people need to know the harms from alcohol to make an informed decision about if, and how much, they drink.

Research indicates that public support for alcohol policies, such as restricting marketing or requiring warning labels on products, increases when people are aware of the alcohol and cancer link.8

Research in the public interest

Increased public awareness about the harms of alcohol is needed to get support for policies that reduce those harms. There also needs to be a more active conversation about what researchers are studying, who’s funding the research, and why.

There is significant conflict of interest for any industry to fund the research on the safety, risks and benefits of its own product.

So, as scientist Tanya Chikritzhs writes: “if the next headline about alcohol that you come across looks too good to be true, maintain scepticism, because it may well be!”9

  1. Rabin, RC. 2018. Major Study of Drinking Will Be Shut Down. The New York Times. June 15, 2018.
  2. Rabin, RC. 2018. Federal Agency Courted Alcohol Industry to Fund Study on Benefits of Moderate Drinking. The New York Times. March 17, 2018.
  3. Cancer Council Australia. Proven risk – Carcinogens.
  4. Cancer Australia. 2019. Alcohol. Australian Government.
  5. World Health Organization. Major NCDs and their risk factors.
  6. Oreskes, N., Conway, EM. 2011. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoking to Global Warming. Bloomsbury; USA.
  7. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016: detailed findings. Canberra: AIHW.
  8. Buykx, P., Gilligan, C., Ward, B., Kippen, R., Chapman, K. 2015. Public support for alcohol policies associated with knowledge of cancer risk. International Journal of Drug Policy, vo. 26, no. 4. Pp. 371-379.
  9. Chikritzhs, T. 2017. Health effects of moderate drinking: Nothing left to say except ‘bottoms up’? Medicus, vol. 57, no. 10, pp. 24-25.