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Keywords:

  • Alcohol;
  • alcohol beverage industry;
  • alcohol research;
  • conflict of interest;
  • ethics;
  • social aspects/publicrelations organizations

Stenius & Babor offer an erudite approach to the divisive problem of alcohol beverage industry research funding. They urge scientists strongly to abstain but recognize that not all will be able or willing [1].

Earlier this year, an extraordinary expression of support emerged for the ‘hands-off’ approach [2]. More than 50, mainly Australian, scientists (this author included) and health experts co-signed a letter to the editor of the Medical Journal of Australia highlighting the pro-industry function of social aspects/public relations organizations (SAPROs) [3] and pledging to reject funding from the Australian alcohol SAPRO, ‘DrinkWise’[2]. A relative newcomer, DrinkWise has reportedly funded research by ‘leading academics’[sic] from at least five Australian universities [4].

Complete agreement among the scientific community on this issue is unlikely, and as public-funded research coffers shrink more scientists may turn to industry sponsors. One could also speculate that the odds of the many manifestations of the alcohol industry electing voluntarily to abide faithfully by the guiding principles set out for it by academics are infinitely small. Given this, reflection on the role of scientific journals in managing the negative consequences of the liaisons between scientists and the alcohol industry may be worthwhile. In particular, is the ‘conflict of interest’ declaration (COI) for authors sufficient to defend our collective scientific integrity and public standing into the future?

Author COI declarations are subjective. There is currently no systematic and objective means of identifying whether the information provided by COI declarations is comprehensive or accurate. An author may, for instance, reveal that research was funded by the alcohol industry but neglect to mention that two out of six members of the project advisory committee were SAPRO board members. Even apparently full disclosures can fail to reveal key information [5]. Where a COI declaration refers to a SAPRO ‘co-badged’ with government (e.g. DrinkWise) it is conceivable that an uninformed reader might assume that the government affiliation indicates a benevolent agency.

COI declarations are now central to addiction journal ethics polices [6], but there has been little investment in determining their effectiveness in general, let alone for the alcohol field. Are they read and who reads them? Do they alert? The hope seems to be that by, ‘. . . turning arc lights on the possibility of it [bias and distortion] in this way is likely to greatly assist readers in alerting them to apply the strictest critical appraisal to such papers’ ([7], p. 218). On whether or not this hope is justified, there is scant evidence to go by. Two methodologically similar studies suggested that an author's statement of a personal financial conflict of interest (i.e. industry employee with stock options) reduced reader perceptions of a manuscript's ‘believability’ when compared to a statement indicating ‘none declared’. However, potential COI due to receipt of industry grants (i.e. funding) did not appear to influence significantly reader perceptions of believability [8,9].

Stenius & Babor point to studies from the wider scientific literature showing that, overall, publications arising from industry funded research are more likely to produce pro-industry results [1]; they are also more likely to use study designs that favour the industry intervention, e.g. [10,11]. Such behaviour has not been documented within the addictions field [12], but that does not mean that it does not occur in the peer-reviewed alcohol-related literature—only that its presence is yet to be illuminated.

Having received alcohol industry funds for research does not appear to present a direct threat to authors seeking publication of their findings in addiction journals. Beyond requiring full author disclosure, the current International Society of Addiction Journal Editors ethical practice guidelines do not specify how to manage manuscripts funded wholly or in part by a SAPRO or industry agency [6]. It appears that submissions are considered ‘only on the basis of their objective merit’ ([13], p. 4) and that a real conflict of interest (e.g. financial interest) would not be sufficient grounds upon which to reject.

Cogent arguments have been made for setting aside real, apparent and potential conflicts of interest when determining a manuscript's worthiness for publication, mainly in relation to tobacco industry-funded research in the late 1990s, e.g. [14]. Almost a decade on, however, evidence for the duplicitous intentions and strategies of dangerous consumption industries (SAPROs in particular) which engage scientists in research activities has come to light more clearly. There is convincing evidence for the negative impact of those strategies on the integrity of shared scientific knowledge, and for this the scientific community will not escape being held responsible by the public. As the timely warning goes out to scientists, universities and governments about the perils of engaging in funding relationships with the alcohol industry, it seems a natural extension for addiction journals to lead an evidence-based re-appraisal of the merits of publishing the products of such relationships.

Declaration of interest

  1. Top of page
  2. Declaration of interest
  3. References

Tanya Chikritzhs is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Aging.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Declaration of interest
  3. References