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International expert meeting: Alcohol research must be protected from industry influence

To protect the integrity and legitimacy of alcohol research, there should be no funding relationship between the alcohol industry and the research community. This was the conclusion from an expert meeting in Dublin, 15-16 May, where experiences with the industry from Europe, the US and the South were presented.

An international group of alcohol policy researchers and public health and NGO experts met in Dublin, 15-16 May 2008, to discuss the positioning of science, knowledge and policy in relation to the alcohol industry. The meeting concluded by adopting the so-called Clarion declaration: The meeting agreed that there is an inherent incompatibility between protecting the public from the harm done by alcohol and the alcohol industry’s requirement to maximize profit by promoting the sale and consumption of its products. To protect the integrity and legitimacy of alcohol research, and the reputation of academic institutions, the meeting concluded that, in the field of alcohol research, no funding relationships with the alcohol industry should be entered into. The meeting noted that the alcohol industry is a powerful multinational business complex that includes the producers of beer, wine and distilled spirits, as well as large networks of distributors, wholesalers and related organizations; trade associations, which are involved in information dissemination, collection of industry statistics, research and development activities, legislative and regulatory lobbying, information and education programmes, media relations, marketing, and scientific research; and social aspects organizations which are funded by the alcohol beverage industry to manage issues from the industry’s point of view. The meeting expressed considerable concern about the involvement of the alcoholic beverage industry in activities that impinge on alcohol research. The industry's research-related activities often question or compete with social policy or public health views about alcohol problems and related policy options, particularly the need for effective strategies to prevent alcohol problems. Industry-supported research activities are used to enhance a false perception of corporate citizenship and thus gain political legitimacy for the industry. Industry involvement in research is therefore an efficient way for the industry to influence politics in ways that are favourable to the industry's commercial interests. More generally, a growing number of studies have shown that conflicts of interests in health research are associated with biased research findings that favour commercial interests at the expense of public health. There is evidence from the tobacco, pharmaceutical and medical fields that financial interests of researchers may compromise their professional judgement and lead to results that are favourable to commercial interests. Not only does this compromise scientific integrity, it also decreases public trust in research. The meeting heard increasing evidence that the same applies to alcohol research. Alcohol research plays an important role in the development of alcohol policy. In part this is because a major consequence of alcohol research is to bring to the public and decision-makers’ attention the harms associated with alcohol. A second important element is the research which provides input to the development of effective approaches to reduce alcohol-related harm and their evaluation. The meeting noted that alcohol industries have an overriding requirement to maximize profit for their shareholders. Therefore, they have a vested interest that the knowledge of the harm done by alcohol is not generated, is not brought to the public and decision-makers’ attention, and does not becomes the basis for effective public health policies, if there is any risk that to do so may impact negatively on the industry's profits. The methods for undermining research and for preventing research results from coming to the attention of the public and decision-makers are well established, and include: 1) attacking the scientific integrity of researchers who produce the research; 2) paying other scientists to attack the research; 3) attempting to stop or reduce funding for researchers who produce the research; 4) promoting a disproportionate research effort in areas which do not generate any information about the harm done by alcohol, or which promote ineffective ways of dealing with the harm, so that dealing with such harm will not threaten profits; and 5) using credibility from being involved in funding research to amplify their ability to undertake the previous methods.