Scientists from discredited alcohol study won’t advise us on drinking guidelines

Scientists from discredited alcohol study won’t advise us on drinking guidelines

Five years ago, the National Institutes of Health abruptly ended an ambitious study on the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption. The reason: The trial’s lead scientist and officials in the federal agency’s alcohol division had solicited $60 million for research from alcohol manufacturers, constituting a conflict of interest and a violation of federal policy.

Recently, this scientist and another colleague from the aborted study with ties to the alcohol industry were named to a committee preparing a report on alcohol and health that will be used to update the guidelines of the federal government on alcohol consumption.

THE nominations of the two men, Dr. Kenneth Mukamal and Dr. Eric Rimm, both of Harvard, have not yet been finalized, Megan Lowry, a spokeswoman for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, said this week, whose Food and Nutrition Board formed the committee. to a New York Times investigation. Members of public can submit comments on provisional nominations until Wednesday December 6.

Less than an hour after this article was published, Ms. Lowry emailed to inform her that the academies had decided not to include Dr. Mukamal and Dr. Rimm on the panel.

“After considering public comments received by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on tentative appointments to a committee to review the evidence on the health effects of alcohol, Eric B. Rimm and Kenneth J. Mukamal are no longer considered for his service on the committee,” Ms. Lowry wrote.

Dr. Rimm, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, who said in various financial information that he accepted money from the alcohol industry, was named chairman of the committee.

Many public health researchers were outraged at the idea of ​​these men influencing a process that would result in official guidelines on alcohol consumption.

“It’s like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop,” said Dr. Michael Siegel, a public health researcher and visiting professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.

The NIH, the nation’s largest medical research agency, had halted the $100 million study, which was to be a 10-year international clinical trial of moderate alcohol consumption, after learning that officials at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism had lobbied for beer and alcoholic beverages. companies to fund the trial and that Dr. Mukamal had attended industry meetings where he described the proposed trial and indicated that the results would justify moderate consumption. Dr Mukamal denied any wrongdoing at the time and said he never received any funding from the industry.

An internal NIH investigation into the matter suggested that the trial was designed to bias the study toward showing a beneficial effect of moderate alcohol consumption.

Dr. Rimm has long expressed the opinion that moderate alcohol consumption protects against heart disease. Last month he said about a conference on science and nutrition podcast that says people could reduce their risk of heart disease by changing their behaviors and eat a healthy diet that includes “a little alcohol.”

Asked for comment, Dr Rimm said it was premature as the nominations were not final. Dr. Mukamal did not respond to a request for comment.

Dr. Kenneth Mukamal, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.Credit…Kayana Szymczak for the New York Times

The new group will examine the evidence on the relationship between alcohol consumption and a range of health problems, including obesity, cancer, heart disease, cognitive health and all-cause mortality. It will also examine the effects of alcohol consumption while breastfeeding, including the impact on postpartum weight loss; composition and quantity of milk; and infant development.

Although moderate consumption – particularly of wine, especially red wine – has long enjoyed a health halo, more rigorous research in recent years and concerns about bias in industry-funded research have raised doubts about the claimed benefits.

Cancer experts say even moderate alcohol consumption can slightly increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, as well as the risk of a common type of esophageal cancer, while heavy drinkers are at much greater risk. high rates of mouth and throat cancer, voice box cancer and liver cancer. and, to a lesser extent, colorectal cancers.

In 2020, when the US dietary guidelines were last updated, the government rejected advice from its scientific advisors to set lower goals for alcohol consumption. Citing a growing body of evidence that consuming higher amounts of alcohol is linked to an increased risk of death, scientists wanted the guidelines to recommend daily alcohol consumption of no more than one drink per day for men and women, instead of the current two. drinks per day for men and one per day for women.

Canadian health authorities radically revised their drinking guidelines earlier this year, declaring that no amount of alcohol consumption is healthy and recommending that people reduce their alcohol consumption as much as possible. The new guidelines are a major change from previous ones, which recommended that women consume no more than 10 drinks per week and men limit themselves to 15.

The new committee charged with reviewing evidence on behalf of the U.S. government will operate under the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, a nongovernmental agency to which Congress allocated $1.3 million. to carry out this work.

Ultimately, the Department of Health and Human Services will oversee updating the federal nutrition guidelines for food and alcohol. But the legislation that allocated the funds states that the Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for ensuring that “the process is fully transparent and includes balanced representation of individuals who are impartial and free from conflicts of interest.”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of HHS, will consider the committee’s report when making its recommendations on how much alcohol American adults should drink in the next edition of the dietary guidelines, according to Joellen Leavelle , a spokesperson for the HHS Division of Health Promotion and Communications.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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