Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Harvard Medical School Teams Up with Makers of Bacardi Rum, Smirnoff Vodka, Jim Beam Bourbon, and Jack Daniels Whiskey, Providing Great PR at Bargain Rates

Last July, Harvard Medical School and its Cambridge Health Alliance accepted $3.3 million from the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility to create an endowed chair in behavioral sciences research at Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Health Alliance. The Dean of the Harvard Medical School proudly announced the acceptance of this money and praised the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, while acknowledging a long-standing alliance between the two entities: "The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility has long been a strong supporter of the research program at Cambridge Health Alliance, particularly in the Department of Psychiatry."

The Rest of the Story

This would be a wonderful story except for a couple of things. First, the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility isn't some independent foundation that provides grants for a wide spectrum of alcohol research. Instead, it is an alcohol industry organization that is funded by several alcohol companies, including Bacardi (the maker of Bacardi rum), Diageo (the maker of Smirnoff vodka), Beam Suntory (the maker of Jim Beam bourbon), Brown-Forman (the maker of Jack Daniels), and Constellation Brands (maker of Svedka vodka and Corona Extra beer). Its primary purpose is, as I discussed yesterday with respect to Anheuser Busch InBev, to obscure the devastating health hazards associated with "responsible" drinking by suggesting that as long as you drink alcohol responsibly, there is no problem.

While the Foundation claims to provide "the facts," you won't find anything about the health effects of "responsible" drinking on the web site. I could not find the word "cancer" mentioned once, even after extensive searching. Obviously, the Foundation has something to hide. How can a medical school possibly team up with Big Alcohol like this in a way that provides tremendous public relations for the companies, and at the bargain price of only $3 million. If you're going to prostitute your integrity by playing a role in the alcohol companies' marketing strategy and provide the companies with the public relations opportunity to boast about how they are partnering with the prestigious Harvard University, then you ought to at least haggle for a lot more than 3 million.

Second, the Foundation isn't the only entity with something to hide. The medical school has not exactly been forthcoming about the fact that it is partnering with Big Alcohol and accepting huge amounts of money from these companies. For example, in a medical school news article about the donation, the school mentions that the funding is coming from the Foundation, but it hides from readers the fact that the Foundation is none other than a group of alcohol companies.

The biography of Dr. Shaffer (the first endowed chair under the Big Alcohol-funded program) provided by the Cambridge Medical Alliance omits any mention of the fact that Dr. Shaffer's financial support comes largely from the alcohol industry.

Potentially even more problematic is the fact that in a 2015 paper published in the Archives of Scientific Psychology on which Dr. Shaffer was a co-author, there is no disclosure informing readers that Dr. Shaffer has received research support from alcohol companies. Yet according to the alcohol companies, they provided research support for four years (presumably 2012 through 2015) to Dr. Shaffer and his colleagues in the Division of Addiction. The Foundation states: "Over the past four years, with multi-year support from the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, Dr. Shaffer and his colleagues at the Division of Addiction have begun work to develop and test a computerized clinical report generator tool, the Computerized Assessment and Referral System (CARS), for use in DUI intervention and treatment settings." If this is true, then it should have been disclosed in the 2015 paper and it certainly creates the appearance that the authors were trying to hide this financial relationship. If the Harvard Medical School is really so proud of accepting alcohol money, then why are they apparently afraid of disclosing that they are taking alcohol money?

After further investigation, I found that it does appear to be true, as the Cambridge Health Alliance Division on Addiction acknowledges research support from the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, stating: " In partnership with the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (FAAR), a nonprofit organization with a focus on preventing DUI, we have refined and expanded
CARS, and tested its usability within multiple Massachusetts DUI treatment settings." This is from a 2014 publication, so it certainly should have been disclosed in the 2015 paper. Tellingly, despite a detailed description of CARS, the Division of Addiction does not disclose that the funding is coming from alcohol companies. Deceptively, all it says is that FAAR is "a nonprofit organization with a focus on preventing DUI." This appears to be blatant and intentional deception to hide the Alliance's partnership with Big Alcohol.

The partnership between Harvard Medical School and Big Alcohol is itself problematic because it helps to advance the goals of the Foundation, whose overall program has been carefully crafted to avoid any focus on the many, substantial adverse health effects of alcohol use, including liver disease, esophageal cancer, oral cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer, gastric ulcers, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, pancreatitis, suppression of the immune system, and adverse effects on the brain, including depression. These effects can occur even in persons who do not engage in binge drinking, underage drinking, or drink-driving. In epidemiological studies, increased risk for most of these effects occurs at levels of drinking just 2 drinks per day (for women). On an individual level, some of these effects can occur at much lower levels of alcohol use.

By focusing only on the "harmful" use of alcohol through its promotion of "responsible" drinking, the Foundation diverts attention away from the substantial burden of disease caused by heavy drinking. The alcohol companies are not interested in telling you about the harmful effects related to the "responsible" drinking of their products. They love telling you about the hazards associated with "harmful" drinking because that implies that responsible drinking is perfectly safe. Adverse effects of alcohol only occur to those who abuse it is the message that the Foundation is paying $3 million to send.

In essence, the goal is to actually promote alcohol use by ignoring and obscuring the devastating effects that "responsible" drinking has on the population. That Harvard Medical School is partnering with the Foundation and enabling the alcohol companies to help achieve this goal, and apparently not readily disclosing the connection, is disgraceful.

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