In the Doghouse

Corrupt NIAAA "Healthy Drinking" Trial Suspended

In a short-term victory for public health and transparency, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has suspended its controversial MACH15 trial. The trial, designed to fish for evidence of the health benefits of "moderate" drinking, received $67 million in funding from Big Alcohol, rendering it suspect from the outset. Now, under pressure from watchdog groups and congress, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins stopped enrollment in the study and ordered official reviews of NIAAA's process.

As the Washington Post reports, Collins told congress that "this particular study was set up in such a way that the funding is largely coming from the beverage industry and there is evidence that NIH employees assisted in recruiting those funds for this study in a way that would violate our usual policies." The NIH had rejected similar funding offers from pharma companies this past April, Collins noted.

Pressure from civic groups, spearheaded by Public Citizen and strongly supported by Alcohol Justice, brought the funding issue to the forefront of public debate. The issues at NIAAA, however, run deeper than an ill-conceived study. The proverbial "revolving door" has seen NIAAA Director George Koob go from alcohol industry research groups to public health. In the process, he promised to end government support of research into harmful marketing practices despite findings of major significance to the health promotion community. In addition, he had direct contact with alcohol industry representatives, reassuring them the institute would back away from research that cast Big Alcohol in a bad light.

Despite the suspension and review of the study, Public Citizen believes more needs to be done. In a statement, Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said, "The institute cannot function effectively without independence from the alcohol industry and must support science-based inquiry into industry practices without fear of industry retaliation." He calls for the removal of Dr. Koob, and a full investigation from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees NIH. Still, he tells the <em>Post</em>, halting the study "is a small step towards restoring [NIH's] reputation."

"Suspending the study is not the same as ending it," said Carson Benowitz-Fredericks, Research Manager at Alcohol Justice. "If NIH decides its hands are clean, they can start it right back up. We need to move now to make sure NIH remembers its mission, dumps the dirty money, and refuses to be a marketing tool for Big Alcohol."

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