NIH pauses study of moderate drinking amid concerns of alcohol industry involvement

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has halted enrollment in a $100 million, 10-year study of moderate alcohol intake and its effect on cardiovascular health amid concerns over conflicts of interest with the beverage industry.

Alcoholic beverage companies are contributing about $67 million to the study, and a March story in the New York Times alleged that two scientists and a federal health official pitched the project to liquor company executives.

There have been conflicting reports about the effect of moderate alcohol consumption on cardiovascular health. One 2017 study found up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men was associated with a more than 20 percent reduction in the risks of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease-specific mortality when compared to lifetime abstainers. But another study, published in January, suggested even moderate consumption levels raised the risk of developing high blood pressure.

The NIH study in question—the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health trial—plans to analyze whether a single drink per day has a health benefit. Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is leading the trial and said through a spokeswoman it has conducted a review of the study and “we have not found any reason to believe that it does not adhere to our institutional requirements.”

But the NIH is performing its own reviews after pausing enrollment. One review will determine if there were any irregularities in the fundraising process while the other will evaluate the scientific merit of the study, according to the Washington Post.

“This particular study was set up in such a way that the funding is largely coming from the beverage industry and there is evidence that NIH employees assisted in recruiting those funds for this study in a way that would violate our usual policies,” NIH Director Francis Collins said May 17 in a senate subcommittee hearing, adding that the agency will decide “whether the study is, in fact, still worth pursuing.”