Pro-alcohol academics paid by drinks lobby

Leonard Doyle
Monday 05 December 1994 00:02 GMT

The salaries of two prominent British academics, both active in the campaign to relax government drinking guidelines, are being paid to the University of Edinburgh by the Portman Group, the drinks industry's lobbying organisation, the Independent has learned.

The British drinks industry is also sponsoring an international conference in New Delhi in January on Aids, Drugs and Alcohol, both by paying for speakers to attend and indirectly through its sponsorship of the Scottish Council on Alcohol, and through its funding of the Alcohol Research group at Edinburgh University.

Some experts on alcohol abuse have already pulled out of the conference because of concerns that it is providing a platform of respectability for the British drinks industry at a time when developing countries are under enormous pressure from international liquor companies. India's prohibitionist policy on alcohol is already being relaxed and the drinks industry is keen to exploit the potentially vast market for its products.

Professor Martin Plant, head of the Alcohol Research Group at Edinburgh University, and Dr John Duffy, director of statistics at the unit, have had their salaries and much of their research and secretarial expenses paid for by the Portman Group, which represents Britain's eight largest drinks manufacturers, since 1989. The Scottish Whisky Association also helps pay for the unit's research. The Independent on Sunday has revealed that the Portman Group is also secretly paying academics pounds 2,000 each to rubbish the conclusions of an alcohol report compiled by Griffith Edwards, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of London.

Recent scientific findings suggest that for some groups of people moderate drinking has beneficial health effects. These findings have provided ammunition for the drinks industry and have already resulted in a review by the Department of Health into the Government's ''sensible drinking message''.

Government advice - supported by the World Health Organisation - is that if men drink 21 units of alcohol a week (a unit is half a pint of beer or a measure of whisky), and women drink 14 units, they are unlikely to damage their health.

Dr Duffy says the limits are ''seat-of-the-pants stuff'' based on the opinions of a group of doctors and health lobbyists, and says drinking 26 to 30 units of alcohol a week reduces the risk of coronary heart disease.

Both academics say it is better to drink than to abstain and are regularly quoted as saying that drinking has tangible health benefits and that scientific evidence supporting this view has been ''almost a dark secret'' until recently.

But advice from scientists not tied to the drinks trade is that despite evidence that drinking a little benefits some people, it is another matter to advise those who do not drink to do so, or to tell people - such as Muslims - they should be drinking for their health.

''It is irresponsible to suggest that you should drink for your health,'' said Professor David Hawks, Australia's senior alcohol scientist, who has advised his staff against attending the New Delhi conference. ''People have lots of reasons for being teetotal from genetic to religious and the benefits can be got just as easily by other means than drink such as exercise, dieting or stopping smoking.''

Spoiling campaign, page 3

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