Money in science necessitates consumer consciousness

In times of uncertainty, we all want to have something to hold onto—a lens through which to understand the world, a set of concrete facts to justify our beliefs and actions. For many of us, that something is science. Yet the implied promise of veracity conjured up by the image of workers in lab coats ought not to be taken for granted. Even ostensibly accurate scientific studies are too often skewed by those funding the research and those who present the results. In today’s society, therefore, the responsibility unfortunately falls to us to examine the information on which we base our decisions.

In one recent example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) came under fire for its ties to the alcohol industry, which may have resulted in biased studies that implicitly promote moderate drinking (Ars Technica, “‘I don’t f—ing care’: In wooing $67M from big alcohol, NIH nixed critical study,” 04.03.2018). Hints of misconduct emerged in July 2017, when The New York Times reported on the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health Trial (MACH), which was slated to examine the potential benefits of drinking. Of the $100 million allocated for the study, a whopping $67.7 million came from five of the world’s largest purveyors of alcoholic beverages via donations to a foundation that raises money for the National Institutes of Health.

Moreover, at least five researchers on the study—as well as Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) George F. Koob—have conflicts of interest in the form of past financial involvement with the alcohol industry. Even Harvard University, the clinical hub of the trial, is biased: The University has faced criticism for accepting $3.3 million in 2015 from a foundation funded by distillers, as well as receiving $150,000 from Anheuser-Busch after a professor collaborated with the company to promote the health benefits of beer (The New York Times, “Is Alcohol Good for You? An Industry-Backed Study Seeks Answers,” 07.03.2017).

In March 2018, The New York Times reached the damning conclusion that the NIAA heavily courted the alcohol industry to obtain funding for the study, even sending scientists to meet with industry executives and suggesting that the results would support the idea of moderate drinking as healthy (The New York Times, “Federal Agency Courted Alcohol Industry to Fund Study on Benefits of Moderate Drinking,” 03.17.2018). As of March 20, the NIH is investigating whether soliciting donations from alcohol companies constituted a violation of federal policy by health officials (The New York Times, “N.I.H. to Investigate Outreach to Alcohol Companies,” 03.20.2018).

Such strategic wielding of financial power is nothing new. In 2012, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report detailing the extent of corporations’ roles in policy-making and scientific processes, pointing out that corporations exert their influence in a variety of ways, including suppressing research, manipulating study designs and selectively publishing results (Union of Concerned Scientists, “How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public’s Expense (2012),” 02.2012). Nor is it limited to the contentious realm of the alcohol business: Studies funded by the food industry have been shown to be much more likely to reach conclusions that are favorable to the industry (Vox, “Food companies distort nutrition science. Here’s how to stop them,” 04.21.2016).

In general, popular narratives that are accepted as scientific fact, which often go unquestioned despite their dubious accuracy, begin at the top with corporate rhetoric and marketing campaigns and trickle down into our daily lives and perspectives. From there, they are perpetuated not only on interpersonal and societal levels but also by media outlets, many of which are themselves steered by huge corporations. In 1983, 90 percent of all media was controlled by 50 corporations; today, that number has dwindled to an astounding six corporations (Business Insider, “These 6 Corporations Control 90% Of The Media In America,” 07.14.2012). Couple that with the extreme monopolization evident in other industries—for example, just 10 companies control almost every food and beverage brand in the world (Business Insider, “These 10 companies control everything you buy,” 09.28.2016)—and it becomes clear that our media diets, as well as eating habits, are moderated by a handful of powerful executives. In an ideal world, publications would purvey information accessibly and accurately, not to mention in a manner geared toward the health and well-being of the consumer, but in reality, they often fall short. As a result, we are inundated with an overwhelmingly capitalistic narrative that glorifies consumption, particularly that of substances like alcohol. Its pros and cons continue to be left ambiguous because it serves the interests of the corporations that control the narrative and produce the goods they want us to consume.

However, the ones who pay the price are often consumers themselves. Deceived by the strategic misinformation circulated by big businesses, consumers often end up paying higher prices for products that may have significant negative impacts on their health or may not perform their advertised function. 5-hour Energy, an energy drink that claimed to be more effective than coffee in generating long-lasting energy and alertness, is a case in point: “[The company] spent more time trying to justify the science behind their ads after-the-fact than they did before marketing the products” (NBC26, “5-Hour Energy forced to pay $4.3 million after court case,” 02.08.2017). Similarly, consumers often find themselves at the losing end when they become a target audience for products that are significantly harmful to one’s health. Evidence has been found that tobacco companies often intentionally cater to retail outlets such as convenience stores, grocery stores and other tobacco vendors which are set up near schools, in the hopes of attracting young smokers. It’s been found that, especially in countries where it’s legal for tobacco to be sold to high school–aged children, “[Exposure is] linked with an increased likelihood of children and adolescents trying smoking and becoming smokers in the future” (Truth Initiative, “After-school smoke? The problem with tobacco retailers near schools,” 02.09.2017).

The false advertising and arguably unethical marketing strategies that large corporations engage in can often go undetected, leaking into our lives in ways that don’t strike us as out of the ordinary. As college students, high levels of consumption, particularly of substances with ambiguous health effects such as alcohol and coffee, are normalized as part of our lifestyle. More responsibility needs to be taken by those who create these narratives and those who are complicit in disseminating them to the larger public, even as they are conscious of the possible harms of doing so. While consumers shouldn’t have to bear the burden of being taken advantage of by capitalistic structures, it might be pertinent for us all to try and be more critical consumers of both information and material products, in the interest of protecting our rights.

–– The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.

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