Big Pharma, Industry, and the Study of Alcohol: A Scientist’s Perspective

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Oh Frigging hell.

A $100 million study titled “The Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health Trial” was recently pulled because of corruption and credibility issues, resulting from collusion between Alcohol industry executives, scientists, and government officials.

Frigging hell.

But before I get to that…

Big Pharma Tangent and Sticking up for Scientists

I started this blog for many reasons, one of which was to try and give a different perspective to the way that scientists and scientific research is portrayed on social media and certain other circles on the internet. What I mean is that there is a general distrust of big corporations, of ‘Big Pharma’ and so on and so forth, and sometimes scientists get lumped in with that. We can be seen as pawns working for pharmaceutical companies, exploiting people for profit, or altering findings in order to earn money for shareholders.

I get it! I really do. I look upon the role of drug companies in the US in the current opiate crisis with as much horror and disgust as anyone else. It is awful that people are dying and lives are being ruined every day, all because of greed.

But to speak for myself for a second, and for my colleagues, and for the vast, vast majority of scientists I know, I would like to say that most scientists I know are good people, who got into this biz because they want to help others. I know I did. Like myself, most of the scientists I know don’t work for pharmaceutical companies (although plenty of good scientists do), they work for Universities and Institutes. Most scientists I know work on their own ideas funded by competitive grants with no vested interest in particular outcomes. We are just trying to find out what the brain does, and we don’t argue with the data. Most scientists I know have never had anyone tell them what to study, ever, or had anyone put pressure on them to produce results in a certain direction. Most scientists I know have never knowingly been compromised or misrepresented data. I certainly haven’t.

A Lack of Trust

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Despite all of that, however, there is still a general distrust of the scientific community, and the recovery community is particularly vulnerable to this. Although this makes me a little sad, it makes sense. Those in recovery are those who have lost so much because of drugs and alcohol, and their addictions may have started with a prescription, or succumbing to societal and advertising pressures to drink, and when these things are seen as being linked to scientists, it is understandable that we would be looked upon with distrust.

But scientists and industry/big Pharma are not one and the same, and they’re not all bad. There are so many of us out there, working hard to try and make things better for people.

A Setback (back to Frigging hell)

With all of that in mind then, it was more than disappointing to read about a recent $100 million study involving over 7,000 participants examining the possible health benefits of drinking alcohol being shut down because of corrupted interactions between individuals in the alcohol industry, scientists, and government officials. Disappointing on so many levels. It is events like this that make it difficult for the general public to trust scientists, and make it tempting for people to tarnish us all with the same brush.

I must be clear for a minute, however, that when it comes to science and the study of the effects of alcohol or drugs, scientists MUST approach that the data for what it is. As much as my life has unimaginably changed for the better since I have quit drinking, that doesn’t mean that this is the same for everyone, and it doesn’t mean that moderate drinking is bad. If the data shows that moderate drinking is healthy, then we have to go with what the data says, whatever our personal feelings are on the matter. We have to be unbiased.

Of course, as it turns out, there are plenty of studies showing that even moderate drinking can actually be bad for us, especially in terms of raising the risk of cancer (alcohol is a group 1 carcinogen), and more recently dementia for example. This information was produced from good studies conducted by good, uncorrupted scientists, in the aim of trying to help us become a healthier society.

Therefore, I am as disgusted and as horrified as anyone else that this large study has been corrupted, that people’s trust has been betrayed, and so many people’s time and money has been wasted. I can’t imagine how it must feel for the scientists involved with the study who were innocent – and there were many because they were the ones who worked diligently to expose those that were colluding with industry. I would also like to note was scientists at the National Institute of Health and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that shut down enrolments into the study and eventually investigated and exposed the corruption.

So we’re clearly not all bad.

But we have to do better.

Scientists Have to do Better

As scientists we are privy to a certain way of thinking. For example, if we see reports in the media of a study showing that ‘drinking red wine is as good as going to the gym’, for example, we would usually know to take this with a large grain of salt. Specifically, because of our extensive years of training in how to critically evaluate information, we know that things like a) the findings of the study are likely to be much more nuanced and complicated than have been reported (in the linked study, for example, participants were fed resveratol, an ingredient in red wine, not red wine itself), b) one study alone generally doesn’t prove very much, rather what is important is the convergence of evidence from many studies, and c) we can make informed assessments about the likely quality of the study based on the journal it is in, and how likely it was to have involved conflicts of interest (such as industry funding from a partner that has an interest in seeing certain results). We can know all this information quite quickly upon reading an article. But the general public don’t study science for around a decade like we do, and then go on to live and breathe science every day in their jobs like we to. So we have to do better.

As scientists, we need to ensure our results are being reported accurately, and to ensure that hyped up results are put into their correct context in a way that is jargon free, and easily accessible. Hopefully this way, we can start to install trust in our profession again. We also need to talk to people, to start a dialogue. Not to sit in our labs and talk to other scientists all day, but talk to the real people that are living the issues (e.g. addiction, dementia, mental health disorders) that we are studying. I should note that there are plenty of scientists already doing this – the conversation is a good example. But there’s always room for improvement, and in the words of the great Michael Jackson “I’m starting with the (wo)man in the mirror“, starting with this blog. Even in the short time I have been writing here I have learned so much about the opinions of non-scientists, how to communicate my ideas more effectively, and so on. But I still have much to learn.

Progress not perfection eh?

3 thoughts on “Big Pharma, Industry, and the Study of Alcohol: A Scientist’s Perspective

  1. Hi ANIR,
    Well said.
    I began a Science degree last year in my 10th year of continuous sobriety at the age of 53. Phew.
    It’s nice to hear from a professional in the field that most scientists are conscientious. I believe it’s true.
    The conspiracy theory that all scientists are working for Big Pharma is akin to saying all Australians are like Crocodile Dundee.
    Keep up the non-technical writing – you’ll find it freeing not to cite your sources all the time. And along the way, there are many connections to be made…and THAT is what I like most about being a ‘blogger’. I hope you do too.
    love alwaz
    mike

    Liked by 1 person

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