Media Praise Study that Excludes Data, Misuses Government HIV Research Grant

October 7th, 2015 4:29 PM

Media outlets conveniently seized upon a study claiming to show higher alcohol taxes reduced drunken-driving deaths, but ignored problems with the study including its funding.

In April 2015, the media, including The Washington Post, covered a University of Florida study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study evaluated automobile accident fatalities involving alcohol between 2001 and 2011, and claimed a reduction in deaths after 2009 was caused by a several-cent increase in alcohol excise tax in 2009.

The study was partially funded through a grant from the National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which is a division of the National Institutes of Health. However, the grant was supposed to be used for HIV research.

“‘There's no doubt as to the accuracy of the University of Florida researchers' overall conclusion: ‘higher alcohol taxes save lives,’ Cook says,” the Post declared on April 2, quoting Duke University's Philip J. Cook, who was not involved in the study.

Four days later, Health Day, US News and World Report, and Medical Daily all praised the study’s claim that, “Increases in alcohol excise taxes, such as the 2009 Illinois act, could save thousands of lives yearly across the United States.” Of those, only US News included any critics or skeptics of the study.

“Repeated studies, including research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, have shown that alcohol abusers are not deterred by higher prices,” David Ozgo, the senior vice president for economic and strategic analysis for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, told US News. He further explained that the reduction in drunken-driving fatalities had begun long before the 2009 alcohol tax.

A professor debunked the study, and the question of whether grant money was mishandled also brought criticism and questions from watchdog groups.

Rebecca Goldin, professor and graduate director of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason University, exposed problems with the study in April 2015. Goldin is the director of research for STATS, a website dedicated to promoting the accurate reporting of statistics in journalism.

Using data from 1999 through 2013, Godlin showed that drunken-driving fatalities had already decreased prior to the implementation of the excise tax. Furthermore, the data from 2011-2013 (which the researchers excluded from their study) showed an increase -- not a decrease -- in drunken-driving fatalities. Goldin concluded, “it’s unlikely that decreasing prices ‘lead to’ reduced deaths rather than simply correlating with them. The issue here is that causal claims in the context of this kind of analysis are misguided.”

None of the media outlets that originally covered the story updated their reports or generated new ones to include Goldin’s critique. Nor did they bring up the use and possible misuse of an HIV research grant for an alcohol tax study.

The study’s acknowledgments lists a grant code that links to an NIAAA grant given to Dr. Samantha Staras to study, “HIV risk among racially-diverse, minority youth: alcohol and partner selection.”

Staras, who is a faculty member at the University of Florida and one of the authors of the alcohol tax study, has applied for and been awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars by the NIAAA toward the HIV research project for five consecutive years. While she has published research on HIV, some of the grant money was redirected to the tax study, which would seem to violate the purpose of the grant.  

According to the National Institutes of Health (of which NIAAA is a division), the only way for a grant recipient to legally change the use of a grant is to submit a Change of Scope letter, which details the new research aim, and asks for approval. Only when given prior approval could Stavas have legally used her HIV grant to fund the study. However, there is no publicly accessible record that Stavas ever submitted such a request.

MRC Business, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) have all attempted to contact the National Institutes of Health (NIH) about the grant usage and determine whether or not Stavas had submitted a Change of Scope request.

NTU wrote a letter to the NIH because, “The grant was provided to the professors to, in their words, ‘develop a research program of HIV prevention focused on the intersection of event-level alcohol use (i.e., alcohol use within 2 hours prior to sex) and sexual partner selection among minority adolescents.’ But what does that have to do with alcohol excise taxes and traffic fatalities? That’s what NTU is trying to figure out.”

The NTU confirmed that they have not had any response from the NIH on the matter. MRC Business has also not had any response, despite contacting the NIH multiple times.

MRC Business also reached out directly to Dr. Staras for comment on Sept. 23. She did not respond before publication.