April 11, 2018
HHS Should Launch Independent Investigation of NIH Officials Who Sought Alcohol Industry Funding for Alcohol Health Study
Groups Call on HHS Secretary Azar to Request Formal Investigation
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Inspector General should launch an investigation into the conduct of National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials who allegedly helped solicit donations from alcohol manufacturers to fund an alcohol study, a coalition of 14 consumer advocacy, science and public health groups said today in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
The study, the “Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health Trial,” which is being funded through a grant from the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), seeks to assess the cardiovascular health effects of moderate alcohol consumption.
In July 2017, the New York Times reported that five of the world’s largest alcohol manufacturers – Anheuser-Busch, Heineken, Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Carlsberg – had pledged at least $68 million to fund the study. In March 2018, the Times reported that the study’s lead researcher and senior officials with the NIAAA “waged a concerted campaign to obtain funding from the alcohol industry” for the study.
They also paid “for scientists to travel to meetings with [alcohol industry] executives, where they gave talks strongly suggesting that the study’s results would endorse moderate drinking as healthy,” the Times said. Such conduct would be a serious violation of NIH policies that explicitly prohibit “employees, either directly or through another party, from requesting or suggesting donations to the NIH or to any of its components, of funds or other resources intended to support activities.”
“The fact that the NIH accepted nearly $70 million from the alcoholic beverage industry to fund the alcohol study was bad enough,” said Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “But the shocking disclosures about senior NIH officials orchestrating an aggressive campaign to solicit such industry funding in violation of longstanding NIH policy, if confirmed, clearly undermines public trust in the NIH.”
The NIH in March announced it would launch its own internal investigation into the officials’ conduct – but, in light of what already is known about the campaign, the agency has conflicts of interest that would preclude a thorough and unbiased investigation into its own staff, the coalition wrote in the letter.
“Among the key unanswered questions is whether anyone within the NIH Office of the Director was aware of this campaign or played a significant role in the alleged solicitation of industry funds,” the letter states. “An independent investigation by the HHS Inspector General is necessary to ensure public confidence in the integrity of the investigation and that all culpable NIH officials are held accountable.”
Joining Public Citizen in signing the letter to Secretary Azar were:
Annie Appleseed Project
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Franciscan Action Network
Government Accountability Project
Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health
National Center for Health Research
National Women’s Health Network
PharmedOut, Georgetown University Medical Center
Project On Government Oversight
Union of Concerned Scientists
U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance