Drinks industry `tried to influence medical journal'

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The drinks industry has been accused by a leading British physician of interfering with the editorial content of a prestigious international journal on alcoholism.

The medical-scientific publication Alcohol and Alcoholism, published by Oxford University Press, reports some of the world's leading research on alcohol misuse. It is widely read by general practitioners and has a distinguished international advisory board of experts on alcoholism. It is, however, subsidised by a charity, the Robertson Trust, which is closely associated with the Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark brands of whisky.

Professor Timothy Peters, of King's College London, resigned as editor earlier this year, complaining he was being pressed to cut down the number of articles showing the biological harm caused by alcohol. In his resignation letter, Professor Peters said he had endured "meddlesome interference in ethical, budgetary, managerial and editorial functions".

The head of the Department of Clinical Biochemistry at Kings College School of Medicine and Dentistry, he complained that a Robertson Trust member brought pressure to bear not to publish certain types of article at least twice. "He [the trust member] told me not to publish the articles on the damaging effects of alcohol on the body, which I found was unacceptable interference."

Professor Peters also complained about interference in a sister newsletter, Alcoholism, which is distributed to more than 10,000 British doctors.

The allegations are denied by the journal's owners, the Medical Council on Alcoholism (MCA), which also receives funding from the Robertson Trust. The trust was established by three sisters in the Sixties with shares from the family firm Robertson and Baxter, blenders of Cutty Sark and Famous Grouse. The trust generates an annual income of £3.5m from whisky and other stocks. In a statement, the charity said: "Only the editor can commission any article published in either the journal or the newsletter." It added that both publications make it "absolutely clear that they are published by the MCA [which] openly acknowledges that it receives funding from a number of charitable trusts with connections to the alcohol industry".

Besides publishing the journal and the newsletter, the MCA educates GPs and student doctors about alcohol misuse. According to its 1994 annual report, it received almost £100,000 of its income from drinks-industry sources out of a total annual income of £124,600.

In a confidential report to the MCA, Professor Peters has also accused the charity's executive director, Peter Abraham, of attempting "to influence editorial policy" by tilting the balance of articles from biomedical reports on alcohol damage to the bodyin favour of articles about alcohol-related hooliganism, drink-driving and other sociological issues.

Dr Abraham, through his solicitors, has categorically rejected the allegation that he or anyone connected with the Robertson Trust had attempted to change the balance of articles. Readers had requested more articles on the "psycho-social" effects, he said. "This was a matter which had been debated within the MCA.

The Independent and Independent on Sunday have already reported that the drinks lobby is paying academics £2,000 each to challenge anonymously a new World Health Organisation book on alcohol policy that calls for a reduction in drinking levels. The drinks industry now dominates research into alcohol misuse in Britain. It provided the funds to establish Edinburgh University's Alcohol Research Group, and pays the salaries and expenses of two senior staff, including the head of the unit.

Academic journals increasingly demand that authors and letter-writers state whether they are being funded by commercial interests. Griffith Edwards, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at London University and editor of the journal Addiction, said yesterday: "Anything which impairs or constrains the independence of an editor is to be condemned."