In the Doghouse

In the Doghouse

Alcohol Research Awash in Industry Money

money changing hands to pay for corrupt alcohol researchEven the most careful research can be undone by bias, and history teaches that industry funding does not encourage the most careful research. From the Tobacco Institute to a half a century of sugar industry-fueled misdirection, financial might has repeatedly trumped scientific rigor in health research. Dr. Michael Siegel, Professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, is quick to call out the same dynamics with Big Alcohol.

Most recently, he has shone light on the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research (ISFAR), an invitation-only group of alcohol researchers centered in part at Dr. Siegel’s own BU—and underwritten by the alcohol industry. Dr. Siegel first began looking into ISFAR when they critiqued a landmark meta-analysis that challenged the “j-curve” theory—namely, that people who drink “moderate” amounts of alcohol have better cardiovascular health outcomes than either overconsumers or abstainers. Needless to say, this factoid is a cornerstone of the industry’s campaign to legitimize and encourage daily consumption. Big Alcohol would feel obligated to reject anything undermining “health drinking” messages emphatically, and ISFAR rode into the breach. Conveniently, the organization’s published critique omitted any reference to industry funding for itself and its constituent members.

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that the source of funding can bias research, even when the researchers are ostensibly independent. For this reason, scientific transparency advocates push for disclosure of funding soures. With that in mind, Dr. Siegel revisited the ISFAR controversy to see if they had moved towards open disclosure of industry underwriting.

He found they had, in fact, worked harder to hide them. An ISFAR member was recently forced to correct an academic article for failing to disclose that he was a consultant for the beer industry. Multiple biographies for members either obscure or outright omit industry ties—Dr. Siegel notes a total of 10 members had possible conflicts of interest.

“You want to think that scientists are trying their hardest during difficult times,” said Carson Benowitz-Fredericks, Research Manager for Alcohol Justice. “The excuse is so often, ‘Well, if the industry didn’t fund alcohol research, who would?’ But when you see organizations taking pains to hide financial ties, it makes you realize how quickly that attitude turns into something darker.”

In his piece, Dr. Siegel notes the complicity of his own institution, and calls for ISFAR to be shuttered. “The time to end this scam operation is now,” Dr. Siegel writes. “Especially in a period in which the federal government has basically tossed scientific objectivity out the window.”

“Alcohol Justice is happy to join the choir calling for healthy skepticism,” said Benowitz-Fredericks. “We stand firmly behind Dr. Siegel as he shines a light on this dark corner of drug research.”

READ MORE about Big Alcohol’s deceptive claims of healthy drinking.

NIAAA Directors Stumping for Big Alcohol

NIAAA's Dr. Murray is the next best thing to Spuds MacKenzieImagine the glee the foxes would feel if the hens willingly walked into foxhouse. Less than 30 seconds into a social responsibility advertisement for alcohol giant AB InBev, we see Dr. Margaret Murray, Director of the Global Alcohol Research Program at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). She briefly extols the virtues of AB InBev's "Six Cities" project. Before her, AB InBev CEO Carlos Brito introduces the company's efforts; after her, Dr. Derek Yach, AB InBev Global Advisory Council Member, asserts how their efforts will be a great benefit to the company. Dr. Murray looks calm and comfortable sandwiched between them. Later in the video, Dr. George Koob, Director of NIAAA, appears, similarly comfortable.

They should not feel that way. They are either being duped in the way Big Tobacco and Big Sugar (not to mention Big Alcohol!) have duped thousands before them, or they are complicit in recklessly undermining the mission of their institute.

This appearance by Dr. Murray constitutes nothing less than an abandonment of duty by a public official, argues Dr. Michael Siegel, Professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University, in an October 30, 2017, blog post. "They are actually promoting and endorsing a company product or service. By doing so, the NIAAA has participated in a marketing ploy of the company. Essentially, NIAAA is helping Anheuser-Busch to market beer ... ," he writes.

This appearance comes hot on the heels of a major, multi-million-dollar grant from Big Alcohol to the Foundation of the National Institutes of Health. This grant is meant to fund a study the impact of regular "moderate" alcohol use in populations around the world. (There are multiple problems with that study, starting with the meaninglessness of "moderate" drinking; a 10/26/17 Wired magazine provides an excellent roundup of the controversy). Yet the Dr. Murray isn't even addressing that study. She is giving a stamp of approval to an in-house AB InBev project piloting ostensible prevention campaigns meant to reduce "hazardous drinking" by 10% in selected target cities. By doing so, she drops even the veneer of representing the research community; she is simply making AB InBev seem like a reputable source of public health research.

It is not. It cannot be. We have fifty years of experience with the research arms of Big Tobacco contributing to tobacco harm denialism. Even when ostensibly acknowledged harm, Big Tobacco has focused on "reduced harm products," and contributed voluntary prevention messaging. It turned out that reduced harm products either didn't meaningfully reduce harm or else were disliked by consumers. Both helped them put an "evidence-based" polish on continuing to deal in deadly products. And when the tobacco companies attempted to preempt the Truth/Legacy Foundation's antismoking campaigns by running in-house prevention ads, those ads turned out—surprise, surprise—to encourage underage use.

Is it a coincidence, then, that the AB InBev video extols their investment in safer products and prevention messaging?

"Industry money in research distorts research," said Carson Benowitz-Fredericks, MSPH, Research Manager at Alcohol Justice. "Industry money in prevention makes prevention ineffective. Murray and Koob know this. NIAAA has to step back into a national leadership role, not just rubber-stamp Big Alcohol's research agenda."

Dr. Siegel sees NIAAA’s participation as more than just an error in judgment. "With the promotion of Anheuser-Busch's interests that NIAAA is providing, the company hardly needs its own marketing division," he writes. "It can simply call the director of NIAAA it's de facto Director of Marketing and Public Relations. The alcohol industry couldn't have a better friend in a higher place.”

Football Sinks Deeper in the Booze Money Mire

our photoshop street team did a little adbusting on Corona's UT ad.Sporting events and sports broadcasts still form one of the great common grounds in America—where people of all ages, all beliefs, from all walks of life, with every kind of lived experience, can come together and be flooded with alcohol advertising. Despite escalating alcohol-related violence at NFL games, the NFL has decided to abandon its policy of rejecting hard liquor ad dollars and allow beer, liquor, rum, and other spirits to buy a place in professional football broadcasts. Not to be outdone by the pros, NCAA’s University of Texas has signed a sponsorship agreement with Corona despite the fact that binge drinking on campuses is epidemic, and a large portion of the student body is not eligible to drink.

The NFL’s new open-door policy comes with a few restrictions. First, liquor ads are limited to four per game, and no more than two in any quarter. Second, the ads cannot be football themed, and 20% must have a social responsibility message. (Though those campaigns may well do more harm than good.) However, the beer industry—a major investor in NFL exposure, with Budweiser paying out almost $1.5 billion for an exclusive sponsorship—carved out a major concession for letting the rival spirits industry to the table: the opportunity to advertise “flavored malt beverages,” which had also been heretofore banned. Flavored malt beverages, better known as alcopops, are Big Alcohol’s entrée of choice into underage drinkers’ hearts, stomachs, livers, and wallets.

If NFL ads fail booze companies in bringing in underage drinkers, college athletics give them a second shot. Historically, colleges have shied away from funding sports through alcohol money, realizing that, with the large number of underage undergrads, directly promoting alcohol formed a total abandonment of their responsibilities to create a healthy environment for their students. But lately, institutions of higher education have backed away from that responsibility, embracing sponsorships and co-branding while hiding behind the same "social responsibility" messaging that has done nothing at all to curb alcohol problems in the NFL. The latest warm embrace of alcohol comes from the University of Texas, whose newly minted sponsorship deal allows Corona to use UT’s “Longhorns” logo in its own advertising, along with the slogan “Horns up, limes in!” UT has failed even beyond the level which many colleges fail in curtailing alcohol use. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Longhorns’ home stadium has the highest per-capita beer sales in the country. This may explain why the Longhorns have not one but two official beers; possibly playing off currents of xenophobia, MillerCoors bought the rights to be the official domestic beer of UT.

This saturation of football with alcohol advertising needs to end. The effects on underage drinking are apparent, and the effects on alcohol-related harm on adults are becoming undeniable. It is time that sports organizations recognize that they important in the lives of fans of all ages, and stop delivering their most vulnerable viewers to their most predatory advertisers.

READ MORE about getting Big Alcohol out of sporting events.

WATCH youth-created videos that seek to Free Our Sports.