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In many countries there is a strong community consensus opposed to the tobacco industry and its activities (e.g. [1]), and most Australian universities have banned the receipt of tobacco industry research funding [2]. Alcohol industry funding of research has received comparatively little attention from advocates and, arguably, medical science as a whole is ambivalent about the practice. Accepting such funding has the obvious benefit of increasing university revenue. Notably, however, recent research suggests that in Europe and North America the alcohol industry makes a relatively small contribution to scientific research, one which is apparently designed to aid it in shaping research agendas and enhancing the industry's credibility as socially responsible [3]. This practice exposes researchers and universities to significant ethical risks [4], and it is unclear whether these risks are properly considered in the decision to accept such funding.

In 2007 we invited Australian university vice-chancellors to complete a postal questionnaire concerning policy on alcohol industry research funding (Table 1). Questionnaires were received from 23 (61%) of Australia's 38 universities; seven declined to participate and eight did not respond.

Table 1.  Australian university policies on the receipt of alcohol industry research funding.
 Numbera% of respondents(95% CI)
  • a

    Completed questionnaires were received from 23 (61%) of Australia's 38 universities.

Have a formal policy14(0–23)
Ethics of alcohol industry funding formally discussed14(0–23)
Funding from alcohol industry sources is handled in the same way as any other research funding1983(62–94)
Anticipate a change to policy in next 12 months   
 No1878(58–91)
 Yes00
 Don't know522(9–17)

One university had a formal policy on alcohol industry research funding. With one other exception, the issue had not been raised for discussion by governing bodies and none anticipated it being discussed. This is surprising, given the harm caused by alcohol and among university students in particular [5].

Like tobacco companies, the alcohol industry tries to shape public discourse and government thinking on alcohol policy. The Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia (DSICA) describes its mission thus:

. . . to create an informed political and social environment that recognises the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, encourages responsible community attitudes towards alcohol, challenges the prejudices and inequities faced by the spirits and liqueurs industry, enables our members to responsibly conduct their businesses free from unwarranted interference in a fair and competitive market place and protects the integrity, growth and profitability of the distilled spirits and liqueurs industry in Australia. [6]

It serves industry interests to find scientists to help, via their research endeavours, to shift the focus of public discourse on alcohol policy from control of availability and promotion—strategies supported by research evidence [7]—towards individualized approaches, such as education in schools, which are ineffective [7].

Our findings suggest that universities do not advise researchers systematically on the risks of accepting alcohol industry funding [4]. The issue barely registers as a concern, with 19 of 23 reporting that alcohol industry funding would be handled like any other research funding.

This is noteworthy, given the position of some physicians [8], scientists [9] and government agencies. For example, the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation in Australia will not fund researchers who accept alcohol industry funding [10].

The alcohol industry and universities are tightly intertwined. For example, the Australian Wine Research Institute's managing director is a professor and two other professors are board members [11]. Similarly, the Australasian Associated Brewers lists a professor as a medical adviser and claims to have funded more than 120 university research projects from 1978 to 2005 [12].

There does not appear to be previous research on this issue in Australia or in other countries. Alcohol industry funding of research occurs in Europe through bodies such as the European Research Advisory Board (ERAB), which funds research grants, travel grants and awards for young researchers. In his request to potential grant reviewers, ERAB's chairman describes ERAB as ‘a charity dedicated to alcohol research’ (personal communication, 22 May 2007) without mention of industry links, but the website shows that this body is funded by the brewing industry and five of its board members are alcohol industry representatives [13]. In North America ‘ABMRF/The Foundation for Alcohol Research’, which has been in existence since 1982 [14] is also an instrument of the brewing industries, and funds research projects and conferences [3].

There would be value in determining whether universities in other countries are as disinterested as are Australian universities in the ethical implications of accepting alcohol industry funding for research. Assessing the knowledge of early career scientists concerning the industry provenance of such funding bodies and their views on the ethics of accepting industry funding would help universities to determine whether they should provide greater guidance to staff.

In the meantime, universities in all countries should develop policies to guide decisions about whether to provide research services to the alcohol industry and they should seek to prevent commercially driven distortion of scientific research, to protect staff from the ethical risks arising from such relationships, and to avoid giving the industry undue influence on health policy formation.

Declarations of interest

  1. Top of page
  2. Declarations of interest
  3. Acknowledgements
  4. References

The authors are not in receipt of alcohol industry funding and they report no conflict of interest. K.K. has never received alcohol industry funding. R.W. and R.S. were co-investigators on a research grant funded by the Australian Associated Brewers (AAB) in 1991 and in 1998 they authored a paper reporting the results of a workshop funded by the AAB. The Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI), which funded the research via a competitive grant, has accepted donations from the Australian Hotels Association, an alcohol industry body, in the form of free or discounted alcohol at HMRI events. HMRI reports that donors were not involved in funding decisions and the funder of the research had no role in the design, implementation or reporting of the study.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Declarations of interest
  3. Acknowledgements
  4. References

The study was funded by the Hunter Medical Research Institute, grant number 07-13. The authors are grateful to Dr Jim McCambridge for helpful comments on a draft of the manuscript.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Declarations of interest
  3. Acknowledgements
  4. References