In Brief

Is it ethical for researchers to give known abusers alcohol in a controlled study?

A special section of December's Psychology of Addictive Behaviors (Vol. 14, No. 4) takes a look at that question in its review of the ethics, informed consent and risk factors associated with providing alcohol to problem drinkers during studies on alcohol abuse and dependence.

According to journal editor Thomas Brandon, PhD, the special section shows that:

  • Ethical decision-making can be informed by empirical research. Investigators, funding agencies and institutional review boards need to be aware of such information.
  • More research is needed in ethical decision-making, such as the consent process and potential risks and benefits to participants.
  • With necessary precautions, alcohol abusers are capable of giving informed consent and the risks are minimal in a controlled study.

The conclusions in these review articles, Brandon adds, may be viewed as controversial by some who adhere strictly to the disease model. They believe problem drinkers have difficulty giving informed consent, and the consumption of alcohol may be particularly risky. The disease model is widely accepted by the lay public, but poorly supported by research, says Brandon, and the review articles in this special issue question this line of thinking.

The articles also provide evidence that problem drinkers who participated in these studies tend not to experience any long-lasting, negative effects. In some cases, according to the articles, participation led alcohol abusers to reduce their drinking or eliminate it altogether. Also, preliminary data indicate that some problem drinkers participate in alcohol studies because they want to learn more about their own addiction or to help other problem drinkers. "These motives should be respected," says Brandon.