Alcohol Blindness


In 1972, looking at data from the Framingham Heart Study, Harvard epidemiologist Carl C. Seltzer noticed that moderate drinkers were less prone to heart disease than abstainers. As it turned out, Seltzer was the first of many researchers to observe that alcohol seems to offer protection against heart disease. But when he tried to share this finding with his peers, the National Institutes of Health, which funded the study, refused to approve his paper. Given alcohol's known hazards, the NIH argued, it would be irresponsible to encourage drinking by publicizing its possible benefits.

Writing in the May Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, Seltzer quotes an NIH official who reviewed his paper: "An article which openly invites the encouragement of undertaking drinking with the implication of prevention of coronary heart disease would be scientifically misleading and socially undesirable in view of the major health problem of alcoholism that already exists in the country." Today the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms still echoes that position, arguing that any statements about the health benefits of alcohol, "regardless of their truthfulness, [are] inherently misleading and particularly deceptive in view of the possible social effect of encouraging the consumption of alcoholic beverages by those who for psychological or physical reasons are adversely affected thereby." (See "BATF Out of Hell," May 1994.)

Seltzer offers the NIH episode as an example of how government agencies may suppress or alter research that runs counter to official policy. He cautions, "What should be epidemiologic science may then become political science."