Earlier this year, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction released a new guidance on alcohol use. The guidance was notable for concluding that there is a dose-response relationship between the amount of alcohol one consumes and one's risk of disease or injury and therefore, greater amounts of alcohol consumption are associated with poorer health outcomes. In particular, the guidance concluded that drinking no alcohol is safer than drinking a low or moderate amount of alcohol.
The International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research (ISFAR) has just published a stinging critique of the new guidance. The critique essentially trashes the guidance and accuses the authors of severe bias. For example, in the critique, Forum member R. Curtis Ellison stated: “I am appalled by the conclusions of the authors of this paper. They present a pseudo-scientific amalgamation of selected studies of low scientific validity that fit their preconceived notions and ignore many high-quality studies whose results may not support their own views”.
The Rest of the Story
The truth is that it is ISFAR that is severely biased, not the authors of the new guidance. But much worse than that, ISFAR is plagued by severe financial conflicts of interest with Big Alcohol. And even worse than that, ISFAR fails to disclose these severe conflicts of interest in its critique. They are therefore not apparent to readers or reporters, unless they go digging through the "fine print" on the website. Furthermore, many of the Forum members have conflicts of interest with Big Alcohol, and those conflicts are not revealed on the web site, not even on the page with their biographies.
For starters, ISFAR as an organization has a history of alcohol industry funding. ISFAR used to be affiliated with the Institute on Lifestyle & Health at the Boston University School of Medicine, directed by Dr. Ellison. This institute was financially supported by the alcohol industry: "Since its establishment, the Institute at Boston University has been funded by unrestricted, educational donations from more than 100 organizations, including companies in the alcoholic beverage industry and associations of grape growers, wine growers and wineries." This funding by alcohol companies apparently continued at least until 2014. In that year, Dr. Ellison admitted that: "the Institute now receives some support from the beverage industry for assistance in the development of critiques (assimilating the views of its 41 Forum members) and operating the website."
Secondly, many of the ISFAR forum members have financial conflicts of interest because they either work for the alcohol industry or have received funding from the industry. For example:
R. Curtis Ellison: As discussed above, in the past Dr. Ellison has received funding from the alcohol industry. As explained in a 2014 article in the journal Addiction: "The co-director of ISFAR, Dr R. Curtis Ellison, receives unrestricted educational donations from the industry through the Institute on Lifestyle and Health, Boston University School of Medicine, which he directs 8, and the Institute receives about 10% of its funding from the alcohol industry 9-11. For example, in 2005, it received a $50 000 grant from the Brown–Forman Corporation, a producer of wine and spirit brands, and $25 000 from the Wine Group, Inc. 12. ISFAR also worked with ICAP to organize a Symposium on Moderate Alcohol Consumption. ISFAR's other co-director serves as the Executive Director of AIM, which receives funding from the alcohol industry via a number of different mechanisms such as subscriptions and project grants 8."
Henk Hendriks: Dr. Hendriks has received funding from the alcohol industry for his work. In a recent paper, it was disclosed that: "This work was supported by an unconditional grant from the Alcohol Task
Force of the European branch of the International Life Sciences
Institute (ILSI Europe). Industry members of this task force are Allied
Domecq, Brasseries Kronenbourg, Diageo, Heineken, and Moët et Chandon." This severe conflict of interest is not revealed in the critique, nor is it disclosed in Dr. Hendriks' biography on the ISFAR site.
Creina Stockley: Dr. Stockley is highly conflicted because she used to work for the alcohol industry. Specifically, she was with the Australian Wine Research Institute, which is the wine industry's own research institute. Although her biography mentions that she worked at the Institute until 2018, it does not reveal that the Institute is part of the alcohol industry.
Ramon Estruth: Dr. Estruth's biography states that he is a member of the Advisory Board for "ERAB." The reader is not told what ERAB stands for, hiding from the public the fact that ERAB is "supported by The Brewers of Europe, the voice of the brewing industry in Europe, whose members are the national brewing trade associations, representing more than 90% of European beer production."
Pierre-Louis Teissedre: Dr. Teissedre's biography fails to disclose that his research group received alcohol industry funding.
Andrew Waterhouse: Dr. Waterhouse's biography hides the fact that he has received alcohol industry research funding.
The rest of the story is that ISFAR is little more than an alcohol industry front group that attempts to portray itself as a neutral and objective body, but which in fact has a long history of having received alcohol industry funding and which includes numerous members who have financial conflicts of interest with the alcohol industry. Furthermore, ISFAR is hiding these conflicts of interest from the public and from reporters because they are not disclosed, or not readily disclosed on the website.
Scientifically, ISFAR doesn't have a foot to stand on either.
One major basis for the Centre's conclusions is that alcohol is a carcinogen and for at least several types of cancer, there is no threshold for the increased risk associated with alcohol consumption. According to the report:
"Cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada. However, the fact that alcohol is a carcinogen that can cause at least seven types of cancer is often unknown or overlooked. The most recent available data show that the use of alcohol causes nearly 7,000 cases of cancer deaths each year in Canada, with most cases being breast or colon cancer, followed by cancers of the rectum, mouth and throat, liver, esophagus and larynx. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, drinking less alcohol is among the top 10 behaviours to reduce cancer risk."
As there is no threshold of alcohol consumption for increased risk of at least three types of cancer, alcohol use definitively increases cancer risk among anyone who consumes it, even at low levels. Thus, it is scientifically sound to argue that drinking alcohol - even at low levels - presents greater health risks than not drinking any alcohol.
But regardless of the clarity of the science, the story here is a continuing attempt on the part of ISFAR to deceive the public, hiding its conflicts of interest with Big Alcohol, all in an effort to trash objective science and promote the interests of alcohol companies.