U.S. Diet Panel Adds Another Researcher With Alcohol Industry Ties

U.S. Diet Panel Adds Another Researcher With Alcohol Industry Ties

Shortly after dropping two Harvard scientists with financial conflicts of interest, the national organization assembling a committee to assess the evidence about drinking and health has chosen four new panelists, among them another Harvard professor who also has financial ties to the alcohol industry.

The committee’s work, under the auspices of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, will be used to update the federal government’s dietary guidelines, which advise Americans on nutrition and diet, including how much they should or should not drink.

Scientists at universities all over North America study the health effects of alcohol, and many do not accept industry funding. The National Academies instead chose two Harvard colleagues who also have published research strongly suggesting that drinking in moderation is good for you, critics said.

“How could they appoint someone with a history of alcohol funding after removing the other two because of alcohol funding?” said Dr. Michael B. Siegel, professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Siegel is a longtime critic of industry-funded research into alcohol.

Many of the committee’s other 12 provisional members are experts in biostatistics and data analysis whose research does not focus primarily on alcohol and health. (One studies alcohol’s impact on prenatal health.) As such, the Harvard researchers are likely to wield influence on the committee, Dr. Siegel said.

While it is indisputable that heavy drinking is bad for your health, some studies have found cardiovascular benefits in moderate drinking. But in recent years critics have questioned the methodology used in some of these studies, many of which were done by scientists who have received financial support from groups funded by the alcohol industry.

The World Heart Federation last year issued a report saying that even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of cancer, injuries and heart disease, including coronary disease, stroke and heart failure.

In 2020, when the U.S. dietary guidelines were last updated, the government rejected the advice of its scientific advisers to recommend lower alcohol consumption. The guidelines now recommend consumption of one drink daily for women, two for men.

“There used to be a consensus that there were health benefits to moderate drinking. Now there is no longer a consensus — there is a controversy,” said Tim Stockwell, a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, whose own work disputes the notion there are benefits to moderate drinking.

“But if there’s controversy, get one expert from each side,” he added. Several organizations and individuals had suggested Mr. Stockwell for the committee, but he said he was never approached.

Canadian health officials radically overhauled their guidelines for alcohol consumption last year, saying that no level of drinking is healthy and urging people to cut back as much as they can.

“I think they’re worried the U.S. dietary guidelines will follow Canada’s lead,” Dr. Stockwell said of the industry.

Among the four new nominees is Dr. Luc Djousse, an associate professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health who has studied the effects of moderate alcohol consumption on cardiovascular disease.

While he has received grants from the National Institutes of Health for his work, he has also been funded by the Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation, an industry group. He was recently a featured speaker at a Beer and Health Symposium put on by beer makers.

Dr. Djousse is also a member of the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research, an organization once closely tied to the alcohol industry, and he signed a letter written on the organization’s behalf that was published in a medical journal. The group says it no longer receives money from the alcohol industry.

He has cowritten several papers with Dr. Kenneth Mukamal and Dr. Eric Rimm, the Harvard researchers whose nominations were removed from consideration last month.

Dr. Djousse did not respond to requests for comment; nor did Todd Datz, chief communications officer for the T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Dana Korsen, director of media relations at the National Academies, said that the committee’s roster remained provisional through a public comment period that ends on Thursday. The committee’s first meeting is scheduled for the next day.

Ms. Korsen did not respond directly to questions about Dr. Djousse’s funding by the alcohol industry. “As with all study committees, the first meeting will include a discussion on compliance with our policies for conflict of interest and disclosure,” she said in an email.

She declined to provide the names of National Academies officials directly involved in the nominations and turned down requests for interviews with them.

A lack of transparency “begs the question as to whether the National Academies has found itself co-opted once again,” said Diane Riibe, who co-founded the U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance, which translates alcohol policy research into public health practice.

Dr. Djousse has cowritten several papers on moderate alcohol consumption and its putative benefits with Dr. Mukamal, who led a $100 million clinical trial on moderate drinking that was supposed to settle questions about its benefits or harms.

In 2018, the National Institutes of Health canceled the trial after The New York Times reported that Dr. Mukamal and officials from the N.I.H.’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism had solicited $68 million from alcohol and beer manufacturers to underwrite the research, a conflict of interest and a violation of federal policy.

“Dr. Djousse is a close colleague of Dr. Mukamal’s,” Dr. Siegel wrote in a recent blog post. “Having him on the panel is the next best thing to having Dr. Mukamal himself.”

The other Harvard nominee is Dr. Carlos Camargo, a professor of emergency medicine and epidemiology who has also studied moderate alcohol consumption and was chair of the alcohol committee for the 2005 U.S.D.A. dietary guidelines.

He, too, has cowritten numerous papers with Dr. Mukamal finding benefits in light drinking. He declined a request for comment, referring a reporter to the National Academies.

The two other new nominees are Dr. Bruce N. Calonge, associate dean for public health practice at the Colorado School of Public Health and chief medical officer of the Colorado state department of public health and environment, who was provisionally selected to head the committee; and Linda Snetselaar, a professor of epidemiology and director of the nutrition center at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, and editor in chief of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Members of the public have until the end of the day Thursday to comment on the nominations. Ms. Korsen, of the National Academies, did not answer questions about how the organization will review public comments that come in less than 24 hours before the committee’s first meeting.

The committee’s task is to review the cumulative evidence about the relationship between drinking and a wide range of health issues, including obesity, cancer, heart disease, cognitive health and all-cause mortality.

It will also examine the effects of drinking while breastfeeding, including the impact on postpartum weight loss, milk composition and quantity, and infant development.

Although moderate drinking, especially of red wine, has long enjoyed a health halo, more rigorous research in recent years and concerns about industry funding have raised doubts.

Even light drinking can slightly raise a woman’s risk of breast cancer as well as a common type of esophageal cancer. Heavy drinking is linked to a significantly greater risk of mouth and throat cancers, cancer of the voice box, liver cancer and, to a lesser extent, colorectal cancers.

The National Academies has never been involved in updating the dietary guidelines, but was allocated $1.3 million by Congress to do the work. Dr. Siegel has called for an investigation into the formation of the panel now that researchers with ties to industry have twice been nominated.

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