by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Alcohol

Mar 28 2018

The NIH’s dubious partnership in industry-funded alcohol research

Last week, New York Times reporter Roni Rabin wrote how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) solicited funding from alcohol companies to fund—and, distressingly, participate in the design of—a study of the effects of moderate drinking on heart disease risk.

This is not the first time Ms. Rabin has written about this study.  In July, she described the study and its funding.

Since then, she has apparently been busy filing FOIA requests and conducting further interviews.  These reveal that the NIH actively solicited industry funding and input into this trial.

The [NIH] presentations gave the alcohol industry an opportunity to preview the trial design and vet the investigators. Indeed, the scientist leading the meetings was eventually chosen to head the huge clinical trial.

They also made the industry privy to pertinent details, including a list of clinical sites and investigators who were “already on board,” the size and length of the trial, approximate number of participants, and the fact that they could choose any beverage. By design, no form of alcohol — wine, liquor or beer — would be called out as better than another in the trial.

But it gets worse.  Boston University professor Michael Siegel tells his personal story of dealings with NIH’s National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

On January 16, 2015, I was called into the office of the Director of NIAAA and was essentially reprimanded for conducting NIAAA-funded research that was detrimental to the alcohol industry…At the meeting, I was told that I would never again be funded to conduct research on alcohol marketing, regardless of how highly my research proposal was scored by the scientific review panel.

Let me be clear: research ethics require funders to have no involvement in research design, conduct, or interpretation, lest they exert undue influence on the results.

Julia Belluz (Vox) put this study in context.  She describes how

The NIH is now investigating whether the researchers violated federal policy by soliciting donations, and they’re appointing outside experts to review the design of the study. We don’t yet know the full story, and there’s surely more to uncover.

Anheuser Busch InBev, Heineken, Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and Carlsberg helped pay $67.7 million of the $100 million government study, which is currently underway. And even more troubling is that if you were a patient looking to enroll in the trial through the online clinical trials registry, you’d have no way of knowing about the industry’s involvement because that funding is not disclosed there.

Although I do not have much to say about the alcohol industry in my forthcoming book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, I mention of this study as an example of how other industries skew research and also how pooling industry research funds is insufficient protection against conflicted interests (alcohol companies agreed to contribute 67.7% of the funding).

It’s good that the NIH has decided to investigate this dubious government-industry partnership, which so clearly seems aimed at marketing, not public health.

Mar 14 2018

Soda Politics: Japan style

I am in Japan this week and am fascinated to see that Coca-Cola produces special products with seasonal themes, just in time for cherry blossoms (which, alas, are not quite out yet):

And it offers fruity varieties:

For the first time, Coca-Cola is adding alcohol to canned Coke (the rum, as in “Rum and Coca-Cola” was not premixed).  It is launching the new alcohol-laced soft drink for the Japanese market.

Japanese supermarkets are already crowded with alcohol-infused soft drinks and teas.  I got this at the OK Supermarket in Yokohama:

Here’s a close up of one variety:

Most soft drinks in Japan, with or without alcohol, are local brands.

Will alcohol help Coke increase market share?  Can’t wait to find out.

Feb 16 2016

Sponsored research Down Under: alcohol and violence

Thanks to my friend Jocelyn Harris of Dunedin, New Zealand for forwarding this editorial from the Otago Daily Times of January 16.

The editorial notes that a recent report finding no linkage between alcohol consumption and violence among Australians and New Zealanders was sponsored by Lion, a leading supplier of alcoholic beverages.

The report is Understanding Behavior in the Australian and New Zealand Night-Time Economies: An Anthropological Study.  Its author, anthropologist Anne Fox, lists these key findings:

  • Alcohol-related violence is just one aspect of a culture of violence.
  • There is no direct relationship between per capita levels of consumption and rates of violence.
  • A drinking culture is both a part of and a reflection of the culture as a whole.
  • Efforts at alcohol control will be ineffective if not related to changes in the macho culture of violence.
  • Scapegoating alcohol as the sole cause of violence merely diverts attention from violent men and the maladaptive cultural norms that allow their behaviour to develop and proliferate.

Her recommendations focus on the behavior of individuals behavior.  They largely dismiss the value of approaches such as limitations on alcohol marketing, the times alcoholic beverages can be sold, or the ways beverage companies create local cultures of drinking.

In a nutshell, the central point of this whitepaper is: it is the wider culture that determines the drinking behaviour, not the drinking. You can’t change a culture by simply changing drinking. It is, of course, justifiable to explore the effectiveness of small measures such as advertising restrictions, increases or decreases in price, relaxation or restriction of hours, but such things tinker at the margins of culture and it is doubtful that they will alter the culture of violence and anti-social behaviour in any meaningful way.

The report explains:

We could become totalitarian and try to stop public festive drinking completely, but it would most likely just move into homes. Or we can live with it and try to determine what the worst outcomes are (police overtime, all night transport cost, lost work hours and productivity, accidents and injuries, street clean-up, etc.,), and work to minimise and deal with them sensibly. We would do better to work cooperatively with all stakeholders to engineer conditions for festive drinking that are the least conducive to violence and anti-social behaviour.

In other words, societies should fix the problem at the level of “festive” drinking, but should not bother to try to prevent it at an earlier stage in the chain of causation of alcohol abuse.

The Otago Daily Times editorial concludes:

It is vital we keep debating the issues, examining the causes and hearing all the voices in the debate.

But that debate must be fair and honest.

It is a real shame, therefore, that Dr Fox has effectively silenced herself by aligning herself with an alcohol industry giant when her findings could have made a valuable contribution had they been genuinely independent.

Presumably, Lion got the report it paid for.  But it left itself—and the author’s work—vulnerable to charges of bias, an inevitable hazard of industry-sponsored research.

A shame indeed.

Jan 15 2016

Weekend Reading: Divided Spirits

Sarah Bowen.  Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production.  University of California Press, 2015

This remarkable book, a recent addition to UC Press’s series on California Studies in Food and Culture, uses drinks distilled from roasted, fermented agave as a basis for entering into debates about production and protection of indigenous food products in the face of globalization.

In recent years, traditional foods and drinks have emerged as profitable and politically salient alternatives to the perceived homogenizing effects of globalization.  Initiatives like the Slow Food movement and DOs [denomination of origin] attempt to rescue eating establishments, dishes, and products from the flood of standardization engendered by the industrial food system.  In doing so, they strive to support the rural communities, farmers, and processors involved in the production of traditional products.  And yet, as my research shows, efforts to regulate Mexico’s iconic spirits illustrate the limitations of relying on alternative markets to protect food cultures and the livelihoods of those who produce them.  My work demonstrates how cultural symbolism can be manipulated to perpetuate and deepen long-standing inequalities along global commodity chains.

Or, as she explains much later, “the right to define what constitutes ‘tequila’ and ‘mezcal’ extends as much from market power and it does from a sense of tradition or justice.”

Consider this book with your next Margarita.

Aug 18 2015

Australian beer company says don’t worry about beer calories: be active!

Louise Fisher, a dietitian and food and nutrition consultant in Australia, writes:

I’ve loved your recent blog posts on Coca Cola’s sponsorship of research that fortuitously concludes that it’s not Coke that’s making us fat, it’s lack of exercise.  It’s no surprise to see that the alcohol industry here in Australia is running the same line. I just received a link to a guide to “get the facts on alcohol” Beer the beautiful truth from Lion, one of our biggest suppliers of beer. And what do you know, beer doesn’t make you fat, you just need to be more active.

Under Myth Busters on page 4:

DOES ALCOHOL CAUSE WEIGHT GAIN? DOES BEER MAKE ME FAT? It’s not the alcohol per se that causes weight gain. Eating or drinking more calories/kilojoules (energy) than you burn, from any food or drink, can contribute to weight gain. It is important to balance the calories we eat and drink with those we burn through physical activity and basic functioning like breathing and sleeping.

If you do drink, it’s important to know the calories in alcohol mainly come from the alcohol content, as well as the carbohydrate and sugars content. For example, a low strength beer will typically have less calories than a full strength beer. So really, it comes down to how much and what type of alcohol you have and what you eat with it – the chips, the kebab. Plus how active you are.

Hey.  If this strategy works for Coca-Cola….

 

Dec 10 2013

Yes, one more post on the meaning of “natural”

At a talk I gave for CQ Roll Call in Washington, DC last week, an audience member asked about the definition of “natural.”  I thought I had said everything there was to say about it (see post from August).  Wrong.

Another member of the audience sent me the definition of “natural” produced by, of all things, the  Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Three federal agencies deal with “natural.”

The FDA

In answer to the question, “What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?,” the FDA says:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

The USDA

The USDA discusses “natural” in the context of organic foods, in order to distinguish “natural” from organic:

Natural. As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.

The ATF

This agency is in charge of regulating alcoholic beverages, largely for tax-collection purposes.  Its “ATF Ruling 85-4” does not actually define the term “natural,” but instead says when ATF takes no exception to its use.

(1) Any grape fruit, citrus or agricultural wine may be designated “natural” if it is made without added alcohol or brandy…No other type of wine may be designated as “natural.”

(2) A distilled spirit may be designated as “natural” if is solely the result of distillation, with or without mingling of the same class and type of spirits or simple filtration which does not alter the class or type of the product.

(3) A malt beverage may be designated “natural” if it is made without adjuncts (additives) other than those additives which do not remain in the finished product, either by precipitating out or by combining with other components of the product and the resulting compound precipitates or is filtered out.

I am not making this up.

CSPI thinks it’s time to phase out the use of “natural.”  OK by me.

Addition: Michele Simon, who blogs at Eat, Drink, Politics, writes (she’s not making this up either):

In fact, ATF is how housed within the Department of Justice.

Historically, ATF had all jurisdiction over alcohol (and was within Treasury), which is where that rule must have come from.

ATF still maintains jurisdiction over criminal activity, but now, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau oversees labeling. That’s housed within Treasury.

This explains the split in 2002 (click here).

Clear as mud? So maybe you can add a fourth agency to your list!

Jul 6 2012

A food politics thought for the weekend: treatment vs. prevention

I’ve been at meetings in London and Geneva on non-communicable (what we call chronic) diseases and how to prevent them. 

On the way to Europe, I did some catching up on reading past issues of The Lancet and ran across this letter from Sally Casswell of the School of Public Health at Massey University in Auckland. 

Professor Casswell was responding to an article arguing that a major priority in chronic disease prevention should be to strengthen the capacity of countries to deliver primary care services.

Yes, professor Casswell writes, primary care is important.  But it is even more important to focus prevention efforts on the environmental factors that influence the behavior of individuals and cause them to need primary care services in the first place.

Do we really want to continue to live in a world where the oversupply and marketing of tobacco, alcohol, unhealthy processed foods, and soft drinks is tolerated simply to allow continuing profits for the shareholders of the transnational corporations producing and distributing them, while the taxpayer funds the health services and pharmaceutical response to the ensuing disease and injury?

This is a refreshing way to look at this problem, and one well worth pondering.

Apr 3 2012

Food politics in action: the White House vs. the FDA

Today’s New York Times has a long investigative piece on White House interference with FDA decision-making.

The FDA is supposed to make regulatory decisions on the basis of science. When President Obama came into office, he pledged to make decisions based on science and facts rather than ideology:

The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry…It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient.

The Times article documents instances in which the administration failed to keep that pledge.  Most of the instances concerned FDA-regulated drugs and devices, but one involves calorie labeling on restaurant menus.

Recall that when President Obama signed the health care reform act in 2010, he signed menu labeling into law.  This required chain restaurants and vending machines to post calorie labels.

The F.D.A.’s first draft of the guidelines — approved by the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House — included rules for movie theaters, lunch wagons, trains and airlines.

But when the FDA released its proposed regulations a year ago, these venues were exempted.

As I said at the time, “Uh oh. Food is sold everywhere these days as anyone who has been to a drug store lately can attest.”

According to the Times’ account, a White House health adviser insisted on these exemptions out of fear that Fox News might view labels on movie popcorn

as an especially silly example of the government intrusions that conservatives often mocked as the nanny state… This was the era of Glenn Beck, and the White House was terrified that Beck would get up and say this is all part of the nanny state.

That’s bad enough but I noticed other key omissions in the FDA’s proposed rules.  For one thing, they allow impossibly large ranges such as the 200-to-800 calories that Chipotle posts, for example.

For another, they say nothing about alcoholic beverages.  As I explain in Why Calories Count, alcohol calories count and alcohol is almost as calorie as fat (7 per gram).  The FDA is ducking this ostensibly because it does not have jurisdiction over alcohol (the Treasury Department does).

The FDA needs to take a good hard look at these issues.

It has not yet propose final rules.  Maybe the Times’ article will give the FDA some breathing room and allow it to do the right thing this time.

And the FDA needs to get the rules out fast.  If the Supreme Court strikes down health care reform, will that mean the end of menu labeling as well?

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