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Keywords:

  • Alcohol industry;
  • conflict of interest;
  • ethics

Stenius & Babor [1] believe that there are three types of researchers: the good ones, who puristically almost wholly avoid any communication with the beverage alcohol industry; the bad ones, who naively and simple-mindedly see potential partnerships with the industry as acceptable; and the ugly ones, who think that collaboration with the industry (under strong regimentation) might be possible. Those who cannot be wholly good are threatened (‘well advised’) about damaging their futures (loss of reputation in a world going towards stringent ‘ethical’ standards).

The addiction field already has:

  • 1
    The Farmington Consensus [2], setting out ethical standards for conflict of interest while highlighting that a conflict is not per se wrongdoing;
  • 2
    The Dublin Principles [3], with which participants from academia, governmental and non-governmental non-profit organizations (NGOs), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the beverage alcohol industry defined some common principles. In their preamble they state that the common good of society requires all its members to assume their fair share of social responsibility, including the industry. Additionally, they state that in order to increase knowledge about alcohol, the academic and scientific communities should be free to work together with the beverage alcohol industry, governments and NGOs, and that all these organizations should support independent scientific research.

So do we need more guidelines? Are existing ethical statements too lax with regard to the alcohol industry? The Stenius & Babor perspective conjures up two worrying analogies. First, Heinrich Böll's novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum[4] tells the story of a woman whose reputation was destroyed by the yellow press in a climate of moral panic over terrorism, just because Katharina Blum once (in her life-time) had sex with a suspected terrorist. Now, in ethical statements [5], any life-time connection with tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceutical or gaming industry has to be declared, even if it does not have any relation to the submitted material. Together with a recommendation of building a register of ethical life-time statements this may blacklist anybody forever, but particularly young scientists, who may not have had a chance to fully control their first steps in the research community.

Secondly, this is reminiscent of the Malleus Maleficarum (the hammer against female witches), written as a scholarly work with an approbation by the academia that became the handbook for inquisitors. Women were seen as being easily seducible by the Devil. Is there a particular group of researchers—the non-academic group—that has to be saved from being seduced by the devils of the alcohol industry?

Much of the code set out by Stenius & Babor [1] seems to be guided by the principle that the ‘roles of those who produce knowledge in academia and those who have a financial interest in that knowledge should be kept separate’[1]. Not all researchers are lucky enough to have guaranteed jobs for life. Some have financial interest in producing knowledge through publications to obtain research funds, to maintain research programmes or to make their own living. Some cannot be like Diogenes, living in a tub, walking through the streets, carrying a lamp in the daytime and claiming to be looking for an honest man.

Researchers should ‘make sure that reimbursement for a study equals direct and indirect costs?’[1]. Why should guidelines affect the financial autonomy of research organizations? ‘Soft money’ institutes need money not only for a particular study, but also want to secure some kind of stable situation for collaborators. How could they raise money to finance writing of the next grant or articles for the scientific community if there is no money left over after writing the contractual fixed report? Well-funded studies may help to cross-fund other important work. In Switzerland, the National Science Foundation, one of the rare funding agencies where researchers keep their intellectual rights for publication, expects that the researchers provide additional resources for a research project. Behind this idea stands the ‘academic’ principle that the principle investigator is financed anyway by his/her university. For an NGO such projects, although having the highest ethical standards, are per se in deficit, and have to be abandoned if they cannot be subsidized by other more profitable projects.

If funded by the industry, ‘the researcher must be ready at all times to demonstrate . . .’[1]. Why do many principles apply only to the industry? What about funding by alcohol monopolies that nowadays seek to increase revenues through increased availability, or by temperance organizations? The latter may also be ideologically partisan. Also, government departments have introduced clauses [6,7] (for Swiss governmental contracts see [8]) that make research the property of the government and restrict the researcher's freedom to publish. Recently, journals announced that they ‘will not review or publish articles based on studies that are conducted under conditions that allow the sponsor to have sole control of the data or to withhold publication’ ([9], p. 464). Should we abandon governmentally funded research, too? This would be scientific and financial death for many of us. Despite the clause, governmental grants usually enable very valid and highly interesting research. Why not take industry money if this facilitates research without any clauses that restrict the intellectual property and provides opportunities that are otherwise not available [6]? It is the aim of any funding organization ‘to demonstrate “corporate responsibility” and thus gain political legitimacy and influence in the policymaking process’[1].

New guidelines are unnecessary, but if needed should apply equally to all funding agencies and all actors, without moralistic weighting of the funding sources or academic versus non-academic researchers. Research should be evaluated with regard to its quality, and not the source of funding. Most issues could be covered by two simple guidelines under the clear premise of no a priori wrongdoing:

  • 1
    Disclosure of funding sources related to the current study; and
  • 2
    Disclosure of any contractual clauses related to the intellectual property.

Researchers can then weigh the evidence of published research, e.g. through meta-analyses, and make their own judgements about potential biases. Stenius & Babor [1] have provided examples showing that the scientific community functions in this respect. The risk of lost reputation is then borne by the researchers themselves, and not by an external inquisition. To blacklist researchers for life is not ethical but is moralistic and totally unrelated to the quality of their work.

Declaration of interest

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

G. Gmel has participated in scientific meetings co-sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry. He has received funding for research projects that were financed indirectly through sales of the alcohol and tobacco industry via taxes (i.e. funds from the Swiss Alcohol Monopoly or the Tobacco Prevention Funds). He has never received direct funding by the alcohol, tobacco or pharmaceutical industry. He cannot exclude, however, having collaborated in international projects, in which partners received funding from the industry either directly or indirectly via social aspect organizations. Such funding has generally been acknowledged. Participating as an expert in Swiss committees such as those planning the new National Alcohol Program or preparing changes of the Swiss Alcohol Law, he has regular connections with representatives of the alcohol industry who also participate in these committees.

References

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