Big Alcohol and a century of science in its service

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Big Alcohol–the club of global alcoholic beverage giants–emerges as a major patron of scientific medical research over the past century, in a study from the University of York (UK) published 17.9.20 in the European Journal of Public Health. (1)

One hundred years of conflicts of interest

British researchers analyzed all scientific papers on alcoholic beverages published in the last century, between 1918 and 2019. Thanks to the archives of Web of Science, a scientific citation indexing platform.

A direct correlation with the alcohol industry and industry organizations was identified in 13,481 jobs. Scientific publications in 90% of cases, conference proceedings and other writings in the remaining 10%. Rivers of alcohol, money and conflicts of interest.

Who pays for science

Big Alcohol ‘s financial support for science has intensified over the decades. In the vast majority of cases – 11,014, or 82 percent – the works were designed or financed by alcohol companies. Largely from Carlsberg, one of the world’s global beer giants. Other cases include Big Alcohol‘s intermediaries, such as industry representatives and associations serving them.

The analysis, it should be noted, considers only officially declared conflicts of interest by researchers. Without investigating-as was done in the case of Big Food-the numerous instances of omertà regarding the relationships that exist between the corporations, universities, and the signatories of the works.

The influence of corporations on research

The influence of corporations on scientific research has been documented on several occasions. The most striking ones involve the tobacco and agrotoxics corporations, as noted. Not forgetting Big Pharma, whose skewed communications about the outcome of drug trials have led to various civil society initiatives, such as the campaigns Alltrials.net and
EU Trials Tracker
.

The food industry’s conflict of interest is less well documented, although there is no shortage of examples. A study published in PloS One, among others, highlighted the biases that emerged in reviewing studies about the body weight effects of artificially sweetened beverages.

‘Reviews performed by authors with a conflict of interest with the food industry were more likely to have favorable conclusions (18/22) than reviews performed by authors with no conflict of interest (1/9). Notably, the only reviews performed by authors with conflicts of interest that reported unfavorable conclusions were all funded by competing industries (4/4)’. (2)

Big Alcohol‘s strategic goals.

Big Alcohol‘s strategic goals, well highlighted in the York University study, are essentially twofold. Spreading the false theorem that moderate alcohol consumption can have beneficial effects on health and dismissing any correlation between alcohol and negative events (e.g., violence, disease, accidents). So as to encourage consumption and avert restrictive policies (e.g., limits and bans, taxes). Drinking science is precisely for that purpose. And it is no coincidence that studies in favor of Big Alcohol are almost always refuted by those of non-independent researchers. A couple of examples:

– Various observational studies have associated moderate alcohol consumption with reduced risk of more than twenty diseases and health problems. While‘the evidence for the harmful effects of alcohol is undoubtedly stronger than the evidence for the beneficial effects.’ (3)

– a report by an anthropologist funded by a New Zealand alcohol manufacturer (Lion Pty Limited) has come to rule out correlations between alcohol consumption and antisocial and violent nightlife behavior in Australia and New Zealand. Except to be blatantly refuted, based on scientific data and arguments, in a subsequent analysis published in Addiction. (4)

Britain, the complicity of charities

Suspicion of alcohol industry interference to influence national public health policies has overwhelmed even British charitable organizations.

Research has shown that 5 charities active in shaping British alcohol policy are funded by alcohol producers themselves:

– three organizations(Drinkaware, The Robertson Trust , and British Institute of Innkeeping) are almost entirely funded by the alcohol industry or individuals who work in it and are involved in organizing activities,

– two other entities(Addaction and Mentor UK) are subsidized by both the alcohol industry and the public sector. (5)

United States, the scandal of 2018

The most recent scandal was in May 2018 in the United States. Barely three months after starting work, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the research agency of the U.S. Department of Health, canceled the world’s first clinical trial on the link between moderate alcohol consumption and cardiovascular health(Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health, MACH).

The project, costing a record $100 million (!), had been 2/3 funded by five alcohol producers (Anheuser-Busch InBev, Carlsberg, Diageo, Heineken and Pernod Ricard). But thanks to a leak, a pactum sceleris between researchers and industrialists has emerged. The former, ready to promise favorable business conclusions in order to receive funding. The latter already with the reins in hand designing the study model to take advantage of it, as two researchers explain in reconstructing the facts. (6)

When to suspect

Corporation conditioning of research does not always follow obvious linear paths. It can express itself by conducting research programs, manipulating the design, methods and conduct of the study, selectively publishing the results or influencing the interpretation of the results.

To identify industry involvement where not stated, a paper by researcher Lisa Bero of the University of Sydney provides some useful suggestions. (7)

1) The initiative originates from a communications or public relations firm

Communication companies have conducted many campaigns to spread industry messages. A few examples:

– More research on pharmaceuticals is needed to meet unmet needs. A medicalization of life useful only to the accounts of the pharmaceutical industry,

– newer drugs are more beneficial than older ones. Affirmation also expressed in the film‘The Medicine Seller. Unmissable for understanding certain dynamics and available for free on the RaiPlay site.

– Sugar is an important part of the diet. It brings back memories of the hammering advertising campaign of the mid-1980s from the refrain‘balanced diet needs sugar…’, a style now obsolete, sanctionable, replaced by more devious techniques of conditioning the masses, especially on social networks. En passant, it comes in handy to mention that the caloric intake of sugars should not exceed 10 percent of daily calories (keeping rather to halve it), as explained on this site by Andrea Ghiselli, CreaNut researcher.

2) The initiative is intended to be a ‘bottom-up’ effort.

Bottom-up initiatives, promoted by civil society and ConsumAtors, are a powerful tool against lobbies. But the very latter can instrumentalize them. The study cites as an example pharmaceutical companies that sponsor patient groups to lobby for drug approval and/or reimbursement.

3) There is a lack of information on the funding of the initiative or the funding of meeting participants

Sponsorships of the industry and publicly stated author affiliations may be just the tip of the iceberg. ‘The extent of undisclosed financial ties is difficult to estimate, but recent comparisons of internal industry documents or transparency databases with disclosure statements show that a variety of industries provide undisclosed financial support to scientists involved in critical methods or research‘.

4) Initiative draws names of thoughtleaders ‘ and influencers

The use of influencers is now a widespread technique in advertising promotion. The same happens in academic circles, where industries use well-known figures to promote positions useful to business.

‘For example, pharmaceutical companies have identified “movers and shakers” and “key influencers” among physicians at leading academic medical centers in order to communicate messages that promote prescribing drugs for unapproved indications, explains the Australian researcher.

Notes

(1) On Golder, Jack Garry, Jim McCambridge (2020). Declared funding and authorship by alcohol industry actors in the scientific literature: a bibliometric study, European Journal of Public Health, ckaa172, https://doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/ckaa172

(2) Mandrioli D, Kearns CE, Bero LA (2016). Relationship between Research Outcomes and Risk of Bias, Study Sponsorship, and Author Financial Conflicts of Interest in Reviews of the Effects of Artificially Sweetened Beverages on Weight Outcomes: A Systematic Review of Reviews. PLoS One. 2016 Sep 8;11(9):e0162198. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0162198. Erratum in: PLoS One. 2020 Mar 10;15(3):e0230469. PMID: 27606602; PMCID: PMC5015869

(3) Fekjaer HO (2013). Alcohol-a universal preventive agent? A critical analysis. Addiction. 2013 Dec;108(12):2051-7. doi: 10.1111/add.12104. Epub 2013 Mar 1. PMID: 23297738

(4) Jackson N, Kypri K (2016). A critique of Fox’s industry-funded report into the drivers of anti-social behavior in the night-time economies of Australia and New Zealand. Addiction. 2016 Mar;111(3):552-7. doi: 10.1111/add.13149. Epub 2016 Jan 12. PMID: 26860249

(5) Lyness SM, McCambridge J (2014). The alcohol industry, charities and policy influence in the UK. Eur J Public Health. 2014 Aug;24(4):557-61. doi: 10.1093/eurpub/cku076. Epub 2014 Jun 9. PMID: 24913316; PMCID: PMC4110957

(6) Mitchell, G., Lesch, M., & McCambridge, J. (2020). Alcohol Industry Involvement in the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health Trial. American journal of public health, 110(4), 485-488. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2019.305508

(7) Bero L (2019). Ten tips for spotting industry involvement in science policy. Tob Control. 2019 Jan;28(1):1-2. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2018-054386. Epub 2018 Jun 25. PMID: 29941543.

Marta Strinati

Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".