An analysis of NIAAA grants shows that no new studies on alcohol advertising by outside researchers have been funded since Koob became director in 2014.

At NIH Alcohol Abuse Branch, a Seemingly Cozy Relationship with Industry

While the Environmental Protection Agency continues to face criticism over a spate of ethical questions, another federal agency is now under fire following reports that it courted alcohol executives to fund a study under the premise that it would highlight the benefits of moderate drinking, while refusing to support research that may reflect poorly on the industry.

An analysis of NIAAA grants shows that no new studies on alcohol advertising by outside researchers have been funded since Koob became director in 2014.

Visual: m_shipp22/Flickr

According to documents and emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the New York Times reported last month that in 2014, scientists with the National Institutes of Health Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) met with executives at top alcohol companies about a clinical trial that “represents a unique opportunity to show that moderate alcohol consumption is safe and lowers risk of common diseases,” according to a slide presented at the meeting. The Times reported that the presentations allowed company executives to review the study trial design and weigh in on which researchers they wanted to be involved. The companies, behemoths Anheuser Busch and Heineken among them, provided $68 million for the 10-year study, which is currently underway.

At the same time, STAT reported on Monday, NIAAA director George Koob — whose prior work focused on the neuroscience of alcoholism — vowed to roll back research looking at the link between alcohol advertising and underage drinking. Under a grant awarded before Koob assumed his post in 2014, researchers from Boston University and Johns Hopkins University, respectively, had been awarded $600,000 a year to study just that. Their work led to 27 papers, including one that showed a link between the brands of alcohol teenagers saw in television advertisements and those they chose to drink. Once Koob came on board with the agency, he assured an executive with an alcohol industry lobbying group that “this kind of work” would not be funded under his watch.

When one of the researchers, David Jernigan, submitted a proposal for a small study analyzing the social media accounts of major alcohol brands to see whether they could be targeting underage drinkers, it was denied, despite widespread support from NIAAA reviewers. And according to an analysis of grants conducted by STAT, no new alcohol advertising studies by outside researchers have been funded since Koob took over.

While Koob defended the moderate drinking study, NIH director Francis Collins said in a statement last month that the agency is launching an investigation into how the funding was obtained.

Also in the news:

• In yet another controversial move, the Environmental Protection Agency has signaled its intention to overturn California’s air pollution rules, which have enabled the state to set stricter auto emissions and mileage standards than other states under the 1970 Clean Air Act. On Monday, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt issued a strongly-worded statement challenging California’s legal authority to set its own air-quality rules. Pruitt also proposed to review, and likely roll back, Obama-era regulations that would require automakers to nearly double average mileage standards by 2025. It is estimated that the 2012 rules would reduce carbon dioxide pollution by close to six billion tons for all the cars affected. Automakers responded positively to the EPA’s announced plans, while lawmakers in California and top Democratic Party leaders condemned them. California’s attorney general said the state was prepared to “file suit” in order to defend the existing rules. (New York Times)

• Nearly 70 percent of Americans over the age of 65 take some sort of vitamin supplement, despite an astonishing lack of evidence that any of them work — and ample evidence that some may actually have negative impacts if taken improperly. The problem, according to a report this week from Kaiser Health News, may be that while vitamin-rich foods are known to be beneficial, isolating those vitamins in capsule form may actually remove a complex (and necessary) interaction among  nutrients on your plate that scientists don’t yet fully understand. But whatever the reason, the paucity of evidence that vitamin supplements work at all — The U.S. National Institutes of Health has spent billion $2.4 billion over two decades looking for efficacy, without success — should give pause to Americans of all ages. (Kaiser Health News)

• The public health case for legalizing marijuana may have become a little stronger this week. A pair of studies published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine have found that states allowing sales of medical marijuana through dispensaries have seen opioid prescriptions fall by as much as 14 percent. (For states only allowing homegrown marijuana, the reduction has been closer to 7 percent.) The findings confirm what other researchers have been saying for some time: cannabis may be a safer alternative than opioids for managing pain, as far as likelihood of dependency. While the authors caution that marijuana liberalization alone won’t solve the epidemic, their findings suggest that legalization laws “have the potential to reduce opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees, a segment of population with disproportionately high risk for chronic pain, opioid use disorder and opioid overdose.” (NPR)

• The Union of Concerned Scientists issued an angry assessment this week of the anti-science policies of U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, titled “Betrayal at the USDA“. The most egregious actions, according to the group, have included an attack on the World Health Organization for trying to reduce the use of antibiotics in meat and poultry production, a decision to weaken the emphasis on health foods in school lunches by relaxing requirements to use whole-grain products and to cut down on sugary drinks, and a push, backed by industry, to persuade the U.S. Environmental Protection agency to drop plans to restrict a troublingly neurotoxic pesticide, chlorpyrifos, despite a scientific consensus on its risk. Perdue, said UCS senior author Karen Perry Stillerman, is “more interested in rewarding industry and agriculture than in protecting the public health.” (The Guardian)

• Last April, more than a million people around the world turned out for the first March for Science — a vast wave of protest against a new U.S. administration seen as hostile to science, especially the scientific consensus on climate change. This year’s march is planned for Saturday, April 14, and like last year’s it will be centered on the Washington Mall, with satellite events in places as far-flung as Buffalo, New York; Trenton, New Jersey; and eight cities in Australia. And looking to the future, organizers have created an extensive online presence, with an email list of 230,000 people being urged to sign petitions for causes like evidence-based agricultural policies and research on gun violence. In July, activists are to gather in Chicago for a three-day “summit” on topics like community organizing and recruiting volunteers. “Last year the goal was to get people out in support of science,” says a founder of the march, Caroline Weinberg. “This year we’re trying to put more emphasis on direct advocacy.” (Science)

• And finally: The gay hookup app Grindr found itself in hot water this week, after a BuzzFeed News report revealed that the HIV status of users was being shared with third-party companies. While users decide freely whether or not to disclose this information when creating a profile, privacy experts say they may not be comfortable with it being shared in a wider context. What’s more, the transfer and more widespread storage of that data may increase the risk of it being compromised. The companies in question — Apptimize and Localytics — help to optimize apps, but the packaging of users’ HIV status, GPS data, relationship status, and phone ID could allow them to be identified. Grindr’s chief security officer Bryce Case responded on Monday by saying that the HIV data was being shared as part of the launch of a new feature to remind users to get tested. Still, in response to the reaction from the public, Case said Grindr would no longer share that information. (BuzzFeed News)