The director of the National Institutes of Health said Tuesday that he has assigned a group of advisers to examine whether any improprieties were committed in a recently begun study of the health effects of moderate alcohol use — research that is being funded largely by the liquor industry.
The inquiry, announced by NIH Director Francis Collins, responds to a recent New York Times article that said a pair of outside scientists, including one who became the study’s principal investigator, and an NIH official asked liquor companies that stand to benefit from the research to help pay for it.
The Times story, relying in part on emails and travel vouchers obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, said the scientists “pitched” the idea of the study at meetings in three cities with beverage-industry executives and an industry trade group in 2013 and 2014. At one point, the story said, a senior adviser at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism appealed to the industry for money, saying the research could not be conducted without its financial support.
According to the Times, most of the $100 million study is being paid for by five large alcoholic-beverage manufacturers — Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Carlsberg. Their contribution is being routed through the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, an independent nonprofit that has existed for more than two decades to raise private funds and create public-private partnerships “in support of the mission” of NIH, according to its website.
In a statement Tuesday and during an unrelated briefing for reporters at the headquarters of the Health and Human Services Department, Collins said the study has a useful purpose. Specifically, it will try to settle a question with significant public-health implications: whether moderate drinking of one glass of wine daily has cardiovascular health benefits, as some less rigorous research has suggested.
Collins said the study is enrolling more than 7,000 individuals and randomly assigning them to either a group being told to refrain from drinking alcohol or a group having one drink every day. “We will over the course of several years then be able to assess what the cardiovascular consequences might be,” Collins said at the briefing.“The controversy,” he said, “is how the study came about.”
In his statement, he pointed out that NIH signed a memorandum of understanding with the foundation in 2016 “that limits NIH-donor communications in the moderate drinking study.”
Speaking to reporters, Collins called that memo “a very well-written firewall,” which prohibits any outside donations from being used to “design or influence the way the study is carried out. There are concerns that, perhaps before that was all worked out, there may have been some inappropriate discussions that went on between people working at NIH unbeknown to me and the beverage industry.”
He said part of the advisory group will review the study’s design while NIH also explores “whether any of our employees committed an impropriety.”
According to the Times, the outside scientists involved were Kenneth J. Mukamal, a Harvard University physician who specializes in research into the effects of drinking alcohol and is the study’s lead investigator, and John Krystal, a Yale psychiatrist and neuroscientist whose expertise includes alcoholism. The NIH official who reportedly asked alcohol-industry executives to help pay for the study was Lorraine Gunzerath, who has since retired.
“We shall see what that turns up,” Collins said of the inquiry. “I am taking this very seriously.”