It is not an uncommon practice for industry research to be funded by the companies that make what’s being researched. For instance, Colgate may fund toothpaste research. In a perfect world, this makes perfect sense, but unfortunately profit is all too often a company’s main concern. If the results of the research are in favor of the industry, it benefits the industry. The health of the public is what’s left hanging to dry. This is the problem with alcohol research being funded by the alcohol companies themselves.
Obviously not every single funding of research by a company is biased. However, the conflict of interest this creates regardless of ethic is a topic worth discussing.
A Conflict of Interest
A Public Health Report article was published in November 2010 regarding the ethical issues raised when alcohol companies fund alcohol research. They found that issues arise when “commercial interests are perceived to outweigh health considerations. The credibility of scientific findings may be affected when evidence emerges that industry-sponsored research is flawed, biased, or methodologically weak.” Put simply, sometimes companies care more about making a buck than publishing accurate scientific data, and so research is either poorly conducted or skewed. This is the main argument for why alcohol research should not be funded by the alcohol industry.
While it may be a questionable practice, industry funding of research is increasing. The National Library of Medicine conducted a study concerning the ethics of industry-funded research, and the results are eye-opening. While the study does not show there to be any significant skewing happening with industry-funded research, “the suspicion remains that the source of money may call into question the integrity of the recipient, whether it is industry funding of alcohol research or government funding of human rights organisations.” The publication goes on to say, “The response to these concerns should not be to prohibit research that is needed but rather to develop ethical principles to protect the integrity of donors and recipients.”
It turns out these ‘ethical principles’ were created almost 20 years ago.
The Dublin Principles
The International Center for Alcohol Policies held a meeting in Dublin, Ireland, from 26-28 of May, 1997, concerning cooperation between the alcohol industry, government, scientific researchers and the public. The Dublin Principles were formed, a governing document concerning alcohol research, and can be broken down into five main ideas:
- All parties involved “should base their policies and positions concerning alcohol-related issues upon the fullest possible understanding of available scientific evidence.”
- Alcohol policies “should reflect a combination of government regulation, industry self-regulation, and individual responsibility.” This basically says that while these principles should be adhered to, it is ultimately up to the individual.
- All parties involved “should take appropriate measures to combat irresponsible drinking…”
- Only legal and responsible drinking should be advertised.
- All parties involved should “provide the public with information about the health and societal impact of alcohol… in an accurate and balanced manner.”
Now, whether or not companies in the alcohol industry actually follow these principles is the issue. Although no egregious failures to comply have been found, why would the alcohol industry fully comply when food and non-alcoholic drink companies are being found to skew data? The American Beverage Association determined that research funded by food and drink companies is four to eight times more likely to contain skewed data that favors the industry. Why would alcohol companies be different?
The Bottom Line
Alcohol research should not be funded by the alcohol industry. To put the nail in the coffin of why not, take a look at the conclusion found by the National Library of Medicine in a study regarding alcohol research funding: Funding for research by the alcohol industry “is unlikely to contribute to alcohol science, lead to scientific breakthroughs or reduce the burden of alcohol-related illness.” Furthermore, “the industry’s scientific activities confuse public discussion of health issues and policy options…”
The Foundation for Alcohol Research was established in 1982 with the main purpose of funding research on alcohol, from the medical to the behavioral. For many years they have been a well-respected contributor to the cause of alcohol research, and for many years have received funding from breweries. Well, by the end of last year, MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch, and Beer Canada all terminated their funding of research through the foundation. The reason cited by all three was “a shift in priorities.”
The more negative evidence we find through alcohol research, the more scared the alcohol suppliers become.