US Health Agency Cancels Study Financed by Alcohol Industry

05 August, 2019

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

Alcoholic products – whether beer, wine or spirits – are sold almost everywhere around the world. Drinking alcohol is a part of daily life and considered socially acceptable in many, if not most, cultures.

However, some health experts warn that alcohol is a poison and can be bad for you. In 2018, the World Health Organization reported that alcohol kills about 3 million people worldwide each year. And The U.S. National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence has called alcohol "the most regularly used addictive substance."

In 2016, people in the United States alone spent more than $220 billion on alcohol. That number comes from, a website operated by Recovery Brands. It is part of American Addiction Centers, which provides addiction treatment services.

A woman pours alcohol from the bottle into her mouth, 2015. (File Photo)
A woman pours alcohol from the bottle into her mouth, 2015. (File Photo)

The makers of alcoholic drinks spend billions of dollars a year on advertising. The alcohol industry also spends millions of dollars on health studies.

And that has led to a controversy.

A federal health agency in the United States canceled a study about alcohol's effects on the human heart. It acted after three U.S. publications noted a possible conflict of interest because of financing for the study.

The New York Times, STAT and WIRED reported that the alcohol industry gave millions of dollars to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) for the study. They claimed that the industry provided $67 million of the $100 million needed.

The NIAAA leads government efforts to reduce alcohol-related problems. The agency is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, or NIH.

In a statement, NIH director Francis Collins said his agency "plans to end funding to the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health (MACH) trial." It also said the agency was concerned that the study was poorly designed.

The NIH noted the narrowness of the study. As its name suggests, the study was to investigate alcohol's effects on the heart. NIH officials noted concerns that other health conditions, such as cancer, were not considered in connection with moderate alcohol use.

In addition to the design of the study, the NIH press statement expressed concern about the funding process. Investigations by the media found that NIAAA officials had asked the alcohol industry to provide money for the study. This may have violated NIH policies, something the government agency is investigating.

The agency said that all of these "irregularities" damaged the integrity of the research.

Reporters from STAT used a Freedom of Information Act request to examine emails to and from the NIAAA's director, George Koob. They found that in one email, Koob wrote to an employee of an alcohol trade organization. In it, he promised good results for the alcohol industry from the now-canceled study.

That man was Samir Zakhari of the Distilled Spirits Council. This trade organization represents alcohol companies. It often works very closely with government regulators and researchers.

Zakhari is a former director at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. After retiring from the government job, he went to work for the Distilled Spirits Council.

Doctor David Jernigan directs the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He warns about the influence the alcohol industry has on public health research and policy.

Jernigan says laws dealing with alcohol production, sales and use have eased thanks to efforts by alcohol manufacturers. He adds that public health messages about alcohol often cannot compete with information from the alcohol industry.

"Any health messaging about alcohol is completely overwhelmed by conservatively $3.5 billion to $4 billion in the U.S. alone of alcohol marketing. There's just so much marketing for alcohol out there ... health messages can't keep up."

Take cancer, for example. Many people do not know there is a link between alcohol and cancer.

Since 2012, the WHO has recognized alcoholic products as a Group 1 carcinogen. WHO researchers explain that drinking alcohol can cause at least seven kinds of cancer:

  • bowel (colon and rectum),
  • breast
  • esophagus
  • larynx,
  • liver,
  • mouth and
  • upper throat.

However, health experts at the WHO find that many people have not heard about the link between alcohol and cancer. They say it is important to tell people that alcohol is a carcinogen and has been shown to increase one's risk of cancer.

Some researchers are slow to claim a link between cancer and alcohol. Dr. Jernigan is not one of them. He talks about one cancer in particular – breast cancer. Women are especially at risk because of the way alcohol reacts with the female sex hormone estrogen.

"Breast cancer is one of those alcohol-related consequences that many people are simply unaware of. In the U.S., 15% of cases of breast cancer are considered caused by alcohol use. And a third of these cases occur at consumption of less than a drink and half a day."

What can governments do?

The WHO has called on countries to enact effective measures to reduce the overall use of alcohol. These measures usually involve, what Dr. Jernigan calls, the "three A's:" attractiveness, affordability and availability.

He says research shows that taking steps to deal with these three A's can cut down on alcohol problems.

"There is a large body of research that shows that if you deal with the attractiveness by restricting the marketing; if you deal with the affordability by dealing with price and increasing alcohol taxes regularly; and if you deal with the physical availability -- you can reduce alcohol problems. It's not rocket science. And there's a lot of science behind it."

However, he claims that U.S. health agencies with ties to the alcohol industry are not supporting those studies.

"So, the larger point here is -- we know what needs to happen. What's missing is political will. These are all things that require leadership, political leadership, in order to make them happen."

And that's the Health & Lifestyle Report. I'm Anna Matteo.

And I'm Jonathan Evans.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Ibrahim Onafeko contributed to the production of this story. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

spirits n. the liquid containing ethanol and water that is distilled from an alcoholic liquid or mash —often used in the plural form

addictive adj. causing a strong and harmful need to regularly have or do something

controversy n. argument that involves many people who strongly disagree about something : strong disagreement about something among a large group of people

irregularity n. Something that is not usual or proper and that usually indicates dishonest behavior

integrityn. the quality of being honest and fair

overwhelmed adj. overcome by force or numbers

carcinogen n. a substance or agent causing cancer

consequence n. something that happens as a result of a particular action or set of conditions

consumption n. the act of eating or drinking something

attractivenessn. having the power or quality of drawing interest

affordability n. having a cost that is not too high