The Fox is in the Henhouse: NIH Study on Moderate Drinking halts when Major Conflict of Interest Revelaed
Perhaps you’ve heard that drinking a little bit of alcohol every day comes with health benefits? Since the 1990’s, scientists have been exploring the potential benefits of moderate drinking and it’s changed the way we think about alcohol. At this point, about 1/5 Americans believe light drinking is healthy, and about half think that it’s at least harmless. Now, in light of the major conflicts of interest between the alcohol industry and government researchers, it might be time to reconsider those views.
“A Glass Of Red Wine Is The Equivalent To An Hour At The Gym, Says New Study”
Headline by the Huffington Post
Headlines like these sound too ridiculous to be true, but they make an impact and many of us believe them.
The idea that alcohol is beneficial started out with questions about the French Paradox. That is the seemingly mysterious way that French people get away with consuming lots of rich foods like cheese, meat, and red wine without the health consequences. In an effort to explain the paradox, researchers focused in on the higher than average red wine consumption among the French. They did find that red wine contains resveratrol and other beneficial antioxidants. However, the main takeaway for many was that moderate drinking is healthy.
Moderate Drinking and Heart Health
Soon, research started coming out that connected moderate drinking and health benefits. That research was based on observational studies which found that people who self-reported as light drinkers tend to have less risk of heart disease and overall mortality than people who abstain. The conclusion that drinking means less heart disease was embraced by news outlets and heavily reported.
This type of research functions for the alcohol industry as powerful marketing. When we hear that drinking can help with heart disease, which is a major concern for most Americans, we’re going to listen. Conclusions like these paint alcohol as part of a healthy lifestyle which means we’re less likely to hesitate about purchasing more drinks. It also means that some people will start drinking in hope of preventing heart disease.
We don’t know for sure that this research is directly causing people to start drinking, or drink more. However, we do know that deaths related to alcohol health consequences have been on the rise since 1999. That rise in deaths doesn’t include accidents and the statistics were adjusted for population growth. The study focuses specifically on alcohol-related disease like liver cirrhosis.
“Sick Quitters” and Misleading Data
The idea that moderate drinking is good for our health spread like wildfire. At this point, 20% of Americans think drinking is healthy, and 50% believe it’s at least harmless. Considering that there have been NO conclusive studies demonstrating that alcohol is protective for cardiovascular health, that’s alarming. So far, there have only been observational studies using self-reported data showing that there is a correlation between light drinking and heart health.
However, any science savvy person will be eager to point out that:
Correlation does not Equal Causation
Even though there appears to be a relationship between moderate drinking and better health, it’s very possible that other factors are involved. New research shows that’s most likely the case.
Scientists who were skeptical about the health claims surrounding moderate drinking took a closer look at those observational studies. By meticulously checking the methods and criteria with a fine tooth comb, it became clear that the health benefits of light drinking were dramatically exaggerated.
The main problem with those observational studies is that the “non-drinker” category was too broad. It included people who never drank in their lives, as well as “Sick Quitters.” This is a term coined for the people included in the studies as non-drinkers who were abstaining at the time due to previous alcoholism, or health problems.
It might sound trivial, but the overly-broad definition of non-drinker made a huge difference in the study’s results. Originally, light/moderate drinkers were found to have better health than those who were abstaining from drinking at the time. However, when the categories were adjusted so that true non-drinkers were compared with moderate/heavy drinkers, the benefits practically disappeared.
To reiterate this important point:
When the research methods were corrected, there were no longer any benefits associated with light drinking compared to abstinence.
Researchers from the CDC explain:
“Given their limitations, nonrandomized studies about the health effects of moderate drinking should be interpreted with caution, particularly since excessive alcohol consumption is a leading health hazard in the United States.”
The Controversial $100 Million Dollar Deal between the NIH and Alcohol Producers
It’s clear that we can’t make important health decisions based on observational research alone. We need stronger evidence based on randomized controlled trials to really know what moderate drinking does for our health. That means, we need a study that can help sort out misleading factors, like “Sick Quitters”, from real effects.
One such study was up and running until last month. The NIH was performing a long-term, controlled study meant to confirm the cardiovascular health benefits of moderate drinking. However, it came to an abrupt halt when a major conflict of interest was revealed:
The alcohol industry had agreed to pay 2/3rds of the $100 million dollar budget for the study. Additionally, the head researchers admitted to repeatedly meeting with alcohol industry leaders to plan the study.
Considering how industry-funded research is 4 to 8 times more likely to work out in the favor of its sponsors, this is shocking news. The NIH is a federal agency that we trust to produce non-biased, reliable medical research. That’s incompatible with this massive conflict of interest.
If this study continued to completion, it would have functioned as powerful marketing, rather than honest science.
There is no reliable evidence that moderate drinking is healthy, nor safe. Considering how deeply the alcohol industry is involved with the scientific community, we should be cautious about any research whose main conclusion is to drink more alcohol.
For those of you interested in protecting your health, it’s best to drink as little as possible. Focus on increasing those healthy behaviors, like exercising and eating well, which we know definitely work.