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        The politics of drinking

May 23, 2013



Big pharma and alcohol research

One thing the public health lobby has going for it, when it comes to alcohol, is that there’s relatively little in the way of influence from private capital - companies which might profit from efforts to reduce overall consumption.

There are, of course, private clinics and drugs that aim to assist in alcohol treatment, but they tend to distance themselves from population-wide strategies which, I suppose, might conceivably do them out of business.

In the last few days, though, that has changed. You might have noticed some research among MPs about their own drinking habits hitting the headlines. In fact, the results contradicted the headlines in that most MPs didn’t think there was a problem. But no matter.

The research was conducted by Alcohol Concern - and funded by a pharmaceutical company called Lundbeck. It was all done according to a code of practice, but it’s surely no coincidence, as Christopher Snowden spotted, that Lundbeck has just launched a new drug that claims to help people reduce their drinking.

Within minutes of discovering this I got a tweet inviting me to publicise an “alcohol societal survey” being carried out by The Wellbeing Alliance. And guess who’s sponsoring it? Lundbeck again. Clearly there is a strategy going on, probably linked to the new drug, Selincro.

Selincro is an ‘opiode system modulator’ which works in a different way to existing alcohol treatment drugs by directly targeting the system in the brain that regulates the urge to drink, supposedly broken in dependent drinkers.

I’m not convinced you can separate this from social and emotional factors but, anyway, the other distinctive thing about Selincro, says Lundbeck, is that its aim is consumption reduction rather than abstention. Trials saw individuals cut their drinking by an average 60%.

It’s nice to see this as an option, but it suggests that Selincro might have a wider application than other alcohol treatment drugs. Promoting the idea that more of us have a drink problem that we like to think could well benefit Lundbeck.

And the Wellbeing Alliance survey seems to designed to do just that. It’s not a targeted survey. Anyone can fill it in. The questions are around drinking patterns and the impact of drinking. They include: “Are you always able to stop drinking when you want to?” (Though not: “Would you like to take something to help you do that?”)

No doubt the results will produce some headlines, but it’s unlikely they’ll advance very far our understanding of alcohol dependence.

Does it matter that it’s sponsored by a drugs company? If the drug manufactured was alcohol any research, however rigorous, would be deemed fatally tainted.

As state funding is pulled, we can expect more privately sponsored research like this. I don’t want to say that anything should be automatically dismissed. But we need to be aware of commercial interests and sort out our attitude to them.

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