With researchers producing a seemingly constant stream of studies about alcohol's protective effects against dementia, heart disease and other serious health issues, it can be easy for wine lovers to believe their nightly glass of vino is doing good for more than just their taste buds. But when it comes down to it, there's still not enough research to know whether alcohol can actually be good for you. Now a new study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) proposes to uncover some answers, but some scientists are questioning the study's financial backing.
Researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a division within the NIH, are preparing a six-year study that aims to test whether moderate alcohol consumption has protective effects against cardiovascular disease and diabetes. This fall, the NIAAA will begin recruiting a total of 7,800 participants ages 50 and older from 16 different sites around the world—including in the U.S., Europe, South America and Africa—who have an above-average risk for either cardiovascular disease or diabetes, as assessed according to the American Heart Association's health-risk calculator.
Lifetime abstainers will not be accepted into the study, nor will those at risk of developing an alcohol dependency problem. Participants will be randomly assigned to either have one drink every day (preferably with an evening meal) or to quit alcohol altogether. Peggy Murray, director of the NIAAA's Global Alcohol Research Program, explained that biological samples will be taken from the subjects throughout the course of the study, in addition to regular self-reporting, to ensure participants are adhering to their assigned roles.
According to NIAAA director Dr. George Koob, this is the first large-scale study of its kind. While most studies have looked at alcohol's potential causes in retrospect (i.e. when a person has already developed a condition potentially related to alcohol use), this study will watch for any effects during the trial. "The world has asked us to design such a study," Koob told Wine Spectator. "There's an interest in this study, I would imagine, everywhere from the World Health Organization to the beverage companies that make alcohol beverages to regular American citizens, to see whether there are any health benefits of low to moderate drinking."
But as it turns out, a study of this size and scope comes with a hefty price tag: $110 million. And so far, over $67 million of the proposed budget has come from major players in the alcohol industry, including hefty contributions from Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, Pernod Ricard, Diageo and Carlsberg. Additionally, many individuals involved in the study, Koob included, have accepted industry-donated funds toward their research in the past.
Other members of the scientific community are concerned that this arrangement leaves the study vulnerable to conflicts of interest. “How influence works in the scientific process is rather complicated, and it certainly is not necessarily, for most people, something that is seriously going to bias their findings or their results," Dr. Thomas Babor, a social psychologist and professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, told Wine Spectator. "Nevertheless, conflict of interest in alcohol research is not unlike conflict of interest in other areas of science, where there is the potential for people to subtly or not-so-subtly change their findings or interpretations based on the expectation of the funder."
The NIAAA asserts that there will be no industry influence on the trial, however, partly because the money is not coming to them directly from these companies, but rather was raised through the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), a separate entity set up to raise funds to support the NIH.
"The purpose of [the FNIH] is to make sure there is absolutely no influence from the private sources on the design, execution and analysis of our studies," Koob said. "There's no influence of any private sources on this study, and there's no influence from the Foundation of NIH, either; they gave us the money, no strings attached." The NIH frequently uses funds from private sources donated through the FNIH to carry out studies.
Gemma Hart, vice president of communications at Anheuser-Busch, seconds that. "The NIAAA is a well-respected, leading institution that asked the FNIH to engage private-sector donors," she said via email. "We agreed to help fund this clinical trial as part of our commitment to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. We will find out the results at the same time as everyone else."
Dr. Curtis Ellison, a noted wine-and-health researcher and professor at Boston University School of Medicine, was on the review panel for this study, and affirms that the source of the funding should not produce any bias in the outcome. "The investigators themselves do not have a good idea of what [the study] will show, but will report accurately what they find," he said. "There are many NIH guarantees built in to assure that investigators will not have much of a chance to introduce much bias into the results."
But others argue that even when firm measures are taken against any sort of bias, it can still occur. "A large body of research demonstrates that industry-funded studies tend to come out with results favorable to the industry sponsor," Dr. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of several books on food politics, said via email. "This is not because the researchers are bought; the influence [can be] unconscious."
It's hard to say whether this possible unconscious bias is a reason in itself to discredit the study. Scientific research is expensive, and unlike other research, studies on alcohol do not usually attract large charitable donations. They also don't hold the promise of producing new drugs that could prove highly profitable. And not only do alcohol beverage companies have a vested interest in determining alcohol's health effects, but it also fits in nicely with their corporate social responsibility efforts.
"You have to see our involvement in the study in light of our responsible-consumption agenda," John-Paul Schuirink, Heineken's director of global communication, said via email. "Tackling the problem requires a concerted effort from multiple players—governments, NGOs, consumer groups, police forces, legislators, retailers, hotel, bar and restaurant owners and community groups."
So perhaps, as with most alcohol- and health-related questions, there's no perfect answer to this dilemma. It will be up to the greater scientific community to take a hard look at the study's results. And wine drinkers will need to stay informed and consider all aspects of the study before deciding whether to accept its conclusions.