The International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research (ISFAR) claims to be “an independent organization of scientists that prepares critiques of emerging research reports on alcohol and health.” The Forum describes itself as “an international group of invited physicians and scientists who are specialists in their fields and committed to balanced and well researched analysis regarding alcohol and health.” It is “a joint undertaking of Boston University School of Medicine in the United States and Alcohol in Moderation (AIM) of the United Kingdom. Its Co-Directors are R. Curtis Ellison, MD, Professor of Medicine & Public Health, Boston University School of Medicine, and Helena Conibear, Executive Director, Alcohol-in-Moderation (AIM), UK.”
The Rest of the Story
About a year and a half ago, I reported that ISFAR was hiding its conflicts of interest with Big Alcohol. At that time, ISFAR published a scathing review of a meta-analysis which concluded that moderate alcohol consumption does not reduce mortality as previously thought. The review contained statements from 14 members of ISFAR, and every one of the 14 blasted the study, with the review concluding that the study “markedly distorts the accumulated scientific evidence on alcohol and CVD [cardiovascular disease].”
It turns out that five of the Forum members who reviewed the article had conflicts of interest by virtue of either their having received research funding from the alcohol industry or serving on advisory boards of alcohol industry-funded organizations, yet none of these conflicts were disclosed.
Not only did ISFAR hide its conflicts of interest with alcohol companies on its web site, but it also hid these conflicts in a public interview.
More recently, one of the Forum members and reviewers was forced to publish a correction to a journal article because he failed to disclose that he is a beer industry consultant.
Has ISFAR reformed itself, and is it now disclosing the conflicts of interests of the reviewers who write its critiques?
The answer, unfortunately, is no.
Nowhere on its website does it list the specific conflicts of interest of its members/reviewers. Nowhere in its critiques does it disclose these conflicts of interest. And to top it all off, the biographies provided for its members do not disclose their conflicts of interest.
For example, Dr. de Gaetano’s bibliography fails to disclose that he consults for the beer industry — the precise conflict of interest for which he was forced to publish a correction in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
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.”
Ms. Stockley’s biography states that she works for the Australian Wine Research Institute, which it states is “an independent, not-forâprofit research institution.” But it hides the fact that this Institute is funded by the alcohol industry. Far from being independent, the Australian Wine Research Institute is actually the “wine industryâs own research organisation.”
So of the supposedly “independent” and “balanced” reviewers, at least 10 of them have conflicts of interest with the alcohol industry that are not disclosed on the web site, even in their own biographies.
Unfortunately, ISFAR continues to be essentially an industry front group that is providing highly biased reviews without readily disclosing the intricate details of the financial connections of many of its reviewers to the alcohol industry.
They should not fool anybody any longer. The time to end this scam operation is now. Especially in a period in which the federal government has basically tossed scientific objectivity out the window.
Sadly, what ISFAR is doing bears a strong resemblance to the fraudulent public relations activities of the tobacco industry many years ago.
On a personal note, I feel somewhat ashamed that the Boston University School of Medicine has been playing a role in this scam, as ISFAR has been hosted, in part, by our medical center.
On a larger note, this story illustrates why the alcohol industry-funded NIAAA study of the potential cardiovascular benefits of moderate drinking is so problematic. The background research that informs the study is tainted by serious conflicts of interest. But the worst is yet to come — as I will reveal shortly, the research is not an objective attempt to get at the answer to this research question.
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