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Outrage of the Month: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Director Colluded with the Alcohol Industry

Health Letter, May 2018

By Michael Carome, M.D.


If you’re not outraged,
you’re not paying attention!

Read what Public Citizen has to say about the biggest blunders and outrageous offenses in the world of public health, published monthly in Health Letter.

In the wake of disturbing revelations last month that National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Director Dr. George Koob has been doing the bidding of the alcohol industry, Public Citizen on April 5 called on National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Frances Collins to immediately demand Dr. Koob’s resignation or fire him.

The NIAAA is one of the 27 institutes and centers that compose the NIH. Its mission is to “generate and disseminate fundamental knowledge about the effects of alcohol on health and well-being, and apply that knowledge to improve diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of alcohol-related problems, including alcohol use disorder, across the lifespan.”

On April 2, STAT reported that in July 2014, Dr. Koob – soon after he became the NIAAA director – in an email had assured the senior vice president for science at the Distilled Spirits Council, the leading alcohol industry trade group, that under his watch, the NIAAA no longer would fund research evaluating the effects of alcoholic beverage advertisements — research that the alcohol industry disdains. Moreover, at the same time he was providing these assurances to the industry trade group, his institute was seeking nearly $70 million from the alcohol industry to pay for a major NIAAA study that is intended to assess the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption. STAT also reported that in the 1990s, an industry group funded Dr. Koob’s own research at the Scripps Research Institute.

STAT further recounted details of an extraordinary meeting at the NIAAA in early 2015 that involved Dr. Koob as well as Dr. Michael Siegel of Boston University and his colleague Dr. David Jernigan of Johns Hopkins University — two respected scientists who had received grant funding from the NIAAA from 2011 to 2014 to study the association between alcohol marketing and underage drinking. STAT reported that, according to the scientists, Dr. Koob jumped out of his seat at the end of their presentation about their research and started screaming at them, yelling “I don’t f***ing care!” in reference to alcohol advertising. Dr. Koob reportedly told the two scientists at that meeting that the NIAAA would be pulling back from such research.

In a follow-up story on April 4, STAT reported that since Dr. Koob became the NIAAA director, the institute has not funded any new alcohol advertising research, whereas at least seven such studies had been funded in the decade before he became director.

The reported misconduct does not relate to ancillary or minor issues at the NIAAA. Rather, it involves the NIAAA’s core mission. The institute cannot function effectively without independence from the alcohol industry and must support science-based inquiry into industry practices without fear of industry retaliation and without bowing to the industry’s wishes.

The circumstances exposed by STAT indicate that rather than acting in the best interest of the American public, Dr. Koob has been acting at the behest of the alcohol industry’s interests. The only way to excise this corruption from within the NIAAA and begin to restore public trust in the institute is for Dr. Koob to resign or be fired.