Belgium/USA: AB InBev stops funding controversial alcohol study

After being criticized for funding a controversial study on the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption, AB InBev has declared its withdrawal from the survey.

AB InBev was one of five global alcohol companies to support a $100 million scientific study carried out by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and overseen by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). $66 million of the total sum came from the drinks companies including Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Heineken, Carlsberg and AB InBev. The world’s leading brewer agreed to pay roughly a quarter ($15.4 million) of it through 10 annual instalments. Payments started three years ago indirectly through a nongovernmental foundation that raises funds for the NIH.

The study, which included 7,800 participants at 16 sites worldwide, had faced mounting criticism and was recently halted after a series of media investigations suggested that lead researchers and NIH officials had inappropriately wooed the drinks companies to fund the study while strongly hinting that it would end in their favor.

“A definitive clinical trial represents a unique opportunity to show that moderate alcohol consumption is safe and lowers risk of common diseases,” the scientists said in a presentation, when asking for financial support of the drinks companies. “That level of evidence is necessary if alcohol is to be recommended as part of a healthy diet,” they added.

Dr. George F. Koob, director of the NIAAA, denied any dependency or partisanship and said “this study could completely backfire on the alcoholic beverage industry, and they’re going to have to live with it.” However, despite having acquired indisputably great merits as a scientist, Koob is also said to have loose ties to the alcohol industry. Between 1990 and 1994 he had received research grants of up to $40,000 a year from the Foundation for Alcohol Research (formerly Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation, ABMRF), and from 1999 to 2003 he served on the medical advisory council of the same organization, which was financially backed for many years by MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch, and Beer Canada. All of the three terminated their funding of research through the foundation by the end of 2015 citing “a shift in priorities.”

In a letter to Maria C. Freire, president and executive director of the NIH, AB InBev’s global vice president for regulatory and public policy, Andrés Peñate justified his company’s decision to step back from the study. “We believed [the study] would yield valuable, science-based insights into the health effects of moderate drinking.” He also stated that the company assured that “stringent firewalls were put in place”.

“Unfortunately, recent questions raised around the study could undermine its lasting credibility, which is why we have decided to end our funding,” the letter concluded.

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