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Keywords:

  • Alcohol industry;
  • alcohol policy;
  • alcohol research;
  • competing interests;
  • conflict of interest;
  • research bias;
  • research integrity

We appreciate the thoughtful, diverse and engaging comments on our paper [1] by these distinguished alcohol academicians. We are even more grateful for the opportunity to respond.

First, we agree with Professor Heath's comments [2] that alcohol is known to have social as well as medical benefits, and that we could learn much by studying its benefits. However, given the increasing involvement of industry in alcohol science, studies of positive effects of drinking would be more trustworthy if they are not funded by the industry. We absolutely agree with Tanya Chikritzhs [3] and others that addiction journals have a crucial role to play as gatekeepers and that there is need for more research on conflict of interest declarations, as well as on all kinds of bias in alcohol research.

Most of our commentators focus upon the relationship between the research community and the industry as a funding agency. Anthony Gual [4] argues that the principles we propose should be applicable not only to the alcohol industry, but also to other industries. Pekka Sulkunen [5] does not stop there, suggesting that they apply to all funders. We agree that guidelines are called for in relation to other funding agencies as well, and one of us [6] has already made that point in a related paper about funding sources. However, our paper here was written because there is clear evidence that the alcohol industry, in particular, has an international strategy aimed at allying itself with scientific research in order to gain legitimacy at the policy making table, and to affect alcohol policy [7,8]. This fact—which constitutes the strategic challenge—calls for precautionary measures from the alcohol research community, which has no parallel global strategy to address the growing industry influence, and in several instances has proved to be somewhat naive in its relation to the alcohol industry [7]. This is not a Nordic perspective, as Sulkunen suggests, and it may not even be obvious from some national perspectives, such as the Finnish. The situation in the developing countries in this respect is particularly alarming, to the extent that these countries have a dearth of evidence-based alcohol policies and academics find it difficult to turn down industry funding regardless of the alcohol industry's agenda.

Gehard Gmel [9] raises a host of issues, only a few of which we have the space to respond to. We argue that industry funding should equal direct and indirect costs for two reasons: (i) in some instances little or no indirect (overhead) costs are paid by industry, which means that academic institutions must subsidize the industry's research agenda; and (ii) in other instances, industry funding exceeds the immediate need and borders on influence peddling, as when first-class tickets are provided and spouses invited at no cost to scientific meetings to promote industry-sponsored research. Regarding the alcohol industry's funding of research with policy implications, we do question, and draw conclusions from, the fact that they fail to fund research that contributes to effective policy, and note their consistent opposition to the most evidence-based policy options, such as alcohol taxes and availability controls, in favour of ineffective policies such as alcohol education in schools and mass media campaigns [10]. As for witch hunts and moral retribution, these insinuations make good reading as hyperbole, but we fear that both established and novice researchers are at much greater risk of embarrassing themselves when subsequent investigations reveal how they have been manipulated by industry, as has occurred in the case of research sponsored by the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries [11,12]. All we are proposing is that the alcohol research community should either refuse to take industry money or conduct a systematic risk analysis where this is not feasible. Nowhere in the paper do we advocate life-time banning of researchers or classification of researchers into the good, the bad and the ugly. We acknowledge that in some countries industry funding may be the only option available. In these countries it is particularly important to make thorough risk analysis. We are speaking in favour of a systematic mapping of the research involvement of the industry, not of mapping the researchers. We are not in favour of new ethics committees but we are in favour of more transparency, greater political consciousness and systematic risk management within the research community. Perhaps financial declarations could be dispensed with if the alcohol industry were as transparent in reporting its funding allocations as most governments are.

In conclusion, we are encouraged by the diversity of responses to our paper. It seems to have served its main purpose; that is, to raise awareness and provoke debate about these issues; but we are also discouraged by the tangential nature of some of the comments, which detract from the simple message that the strategic intentions and corporate behaviour of the alcohol industry need to be taken into account when research funding is offered. This in no way obviates the need to apply similar standards to other funding sources, nor does it provide a licence to promote blanket bans on industry funding sources and on the publication of the research it produces; but when pharmaceutical companies pay ghost-writers to prepare review papers falsely promoting hormone replacement therapies for menopausal women [13], when tobacco companies blatantly manipulate the science to avoid regulation of their toxic products [14] and when alcohol industry executives admit that they pay university scientists for studies in order to avoid taxation and regulation [15], then it is time to invite the same kind of scrutiny of alcohol research funding sources as has been called for universally in the drug and tobacco industries. Despite the cogent arguments raised by our critics, they offer little reason to change our paper's main conclusion: ‘under most circumstances collaboration with the alcoholic beverage industry is neither warranted nor advisable’.

References

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