Written by Dao Le
When we see yet another headline detailing a groundbreaking scientific discovery, we typically do not question its validity. After all, science is an objective field. Unfortunately, conflicts of interest in scientific research may taint the objectivity and validity of certain studies. Funding in science is at the mercy of large corporations and government agencies that can provide research institutions with grants. This raises an important question: does science always serve the people?
One of the first major industries to use its financial power to influence scientific research was the tobacco industry in the mid to late twentieth century . The role that the tobacco industry played in funding research introduced a new motive for scientific research: rather than for purely investigative purposes, tobacco-funded research was meant to delegitimize previous findings about the dangers of cigarette smoking . To accomplish this feat, tobacco companies typically hired third parties to make decisions in favor of the tobacco industry while claiming that the industry had no association with these third parties. Third parties ranged from individual scientific consultants and researchers to full-fledged organizations, such as the Council for Tobacco Research and the Center for Indoor Air Research . The main tactic employed by the tobacco companies was not to completely discredit prior research detailing the dangers of smoking, but to raise some consumer doubt about these previous studies. One way in which tobacco companies tried to delegitimize prior research was to link physical health issues in cigarette smokers to only genetics, mental health, and nutrition . Introducing these variables without addressing the role of tobacco in the studies that they funded blurred the association between cigarette smoking and negative health effects, which is unethical considering that approximately 480,000 people die per year as a result of cigarette smoking (including secondhand smoke) in the United States . These industry-funded studies may have discouraged the American Medical Association (AMA) and most of the medical community from directly declaring tobacco as a health hazard even up to 1983 .
Though the tobacco industry is no longer as powerful, the alcohol industry is now using similar tactics employed by the tobacco industry to exert control over alcohol research. Currently, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is funding a project with a very specific goal: to illustrate that moderate consumption of alcohol is beneficial to health . It is intellectually dishonest to establish the result of a scientific study before the study is even conducted. Yet, from 2013-2014, the NIAAA hosted extravagant lunches and events to request funding for its moderate alcohol consumption study from multimillion-dollar alcohol companies . In this case, profits are clearly being valued over scientific objectivity. One must note that about $30 billion in taxpayer money goes to the NIH to fund its research projects and grants to other institutions . Taxpayers, at minimum, expect honest research methods. Interestingly, the NIH chose to fund this project over one that aimed to determine if there was a true relationship between alcohol advertisements and underage drinking. The head of the NIAAA even sent a private email to a member of the Distilled Spirits Council, assuring the alcohol industry insider that research on alcohol advertising would never be funded in the future .
Ultimately, we must take precautions to ensure that we are not deceived by industry-funded research. The first step is to improve scientific literacy, both at the individual and community levels. This can be accomplished at the individual level by reading more scientific articles published in the local news and at the community level by creating free health and science educational programs directed at the general public. Such scientific literacy gives the individual the power to think critically and question scientific findings if necessary.
1. Brandt, A.M. 2012. Inventing Conflicts of Interest: A History of Tobacco Industry Tactics. Am J Public Health. 102: 63-71.
2. Cowlishaw, S., Thomas, S.L. 2018. Industry interests in gambling research: Lessons learned from other forms of hazardous consumption. Addictive Behaviors. 78: 101-106.
3. “Tobacco-Related Mortality.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/tobacco_related_mortality/. Accessed 4 May 2018.
4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2014. The Health Consequences of Smoking: 50 Years of Progress. A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health.
5. Roni, Caryn Rabin. “Federal Agency Courted Alcohol Industry to Fund on Benefits of Moderate Drinking.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/health/nih-alcohol-study-liquor-industry.html. Accessed 28 April 2018.
6. Begley, Sharon. “NIH rejected a study of alcohol advertising while pursuing industry funding for other research.” Stat News. https://www.statnews.com/2018/04/02/nih-rejected-alcohol-advertising-study/. Accessed 28 April 2018.