The National Institutes of Health has suspended enrollment in a study aimed at investigating whether moderate alcohol consumption helps cardiovascular health following concerns over the alcoholic beverage industry’s role in the study.
In testimony before a Senate subcommittee Thursday, NIH Director Francis Collins said that enrollment had been halted a week ago as officials investigate how the funding for the study was raised and if the study is still worth pursuing.
“For NIH, our reputation is so critical,” Collins said. “And if we are putting ourselves in a circumstance where that could be called into question, I felt like we had to look at that very seriously and come up with another strategy.”
Recent reports in Wired and the New York Times revealed that the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an NIH agency, had wooed the industry to contribute millions of dollars to the study. Critics said that the funding created a conflict of interest and a potential motivation to publish findings that would back industry claims that moderate drinking does indeed provide health benefits.
Collins said part of the investigation was looking at whether NIH employees sought those funds in ways that violated NIH policies.
Apart from the moderate drinking study controversy, STAT reported last month that George Koob, the NIAAA’s director, told an executive at a lobbying group for alcoholic beverage producers that the agency would stop funding research into the effects of alcohol advertising, a line of study that the industry opposes. STAT also reported that the NIAAA had not funded any new study by outside researchers specifically looking at the effects of alcohol advertising since Koob took over as director in 2014.
An NIAAA spokesperson said at the time that Koob had continued the institute’s “long-standing strategic areas of focus” and that “behavioral and social science research to prevent and reduce alcohol misuse remains an Institute research priority.”
Public Citizen, the research and advocacy group that has called for an independent investigation of the study’s funding, applauded the suspension of the study.
“Until these concerns are resolved,” said Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, referring to industry’s involvement, “it’s appropriate to stop the study. But it’s equally important that NIH not be doing its own internal investigation” of what role alcoholic beverage makers played in funding the study.
The study is being led by Dr. Kenneth Mukamal of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
In a statement, Beth Israel said it has been conducting its own review of the study to make sure it met its research standards, “and we have not found any reason to believe that it does not adhere to our institutional requirements.” The statement also said Beth Israel was cooperating with the NIH’s investigation.
Sharon Begley contributed reporting.