Scientists in Discredited Alcohol Study Will Not Advise U.S. on Drinking Guidelines

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

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

The appointments of the two men, Dr. Kenneth Mukamal and Dr. Eric Rimm, both of Harvard, have not been finalized yet, Megan Lowry, a spokeswoman for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, whose food and nutrition board formed the committee, said this week in response to an inquiry from The New York Times. Members of the public can submit comments on the tentative appointments through Wednesday, Dec. 6.

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

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

Dr. Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who has said in various financial disclosures that he has accepted money from the alcohol industry, had been nominated to chair the committee.

Many public health researchers were outraged at the prospect of the men influencing a process that will result in official guidance on drinking.

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

The N.I.H, the nation’s top medical research agency, had halted the $100 million study, which was to be a decade-long international clinical trial of moderate drinking, after learning that officials from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism had lobbied beer and liquor companies to fund the trial and that Dr. Mukamal had gone to industry meetings where he described the proposed trial and indicated that the results would support moderate drinking. Dr. Mukamal denied any wrongdoing at the time and said he had never received funding from the industry.

An internal N.I.H. investigation into the affair suggested the trial had been designed in a way that biased the study in favor of showing a beneficial effect from moderate drinking.

Dr. Rimm has long voiced the view that moderate drinking protects against heart disease. Just last month, he said on a science and nutrition podcast that people could cut their risk of heart disease by changing their behaviors and eating a healthy diet that includes “a little bit of alcohol.”

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

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

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

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

Cancer doctors say that even light drinking can slightly raise a woman’s risk of breast cancer, and also increase risk for a common type of esophageal cancer, while heavy drinkers face much higher risks of mouth and throat cancer, cancer of the voice box, liver cancer and, to a lesser extent, colorectal cancers.

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

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

The new panel reviewing the evidence for the U.S. government will operate under the aegis of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, a nongovernmental body that was allocated $1.3 million by Congress to do the work.

Eventually, the Department of Health and Human Services will oversee the updating of the federal nutritional guidelines for both food and alcohol. But the legislation that allocated the funds says that the secretary of agriculture is responsible for ensuring that “the process is fully transparent and includes a balanced representation of individuals who are unbiased and free from conflicts of interest.”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is a part of H.H.S., will consider the committee’s report when it makes its recommendations about how much alcohol American adults should drink, in the next edition of the dietary guidelines, according to Joellen Leavelle, a spokeswoman for the H.H.S. division of health promotion and communication.

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