The use of threats of defamation action to silence criticism is not confined to Britain, where the chiropractors’ association has recently sued journalist Simon Singh for criticising the lack of evidence to support many of their practices.

In May this year Peter Miller and 50 colleagues (including me) published a letter in the Medical Journal of Australia stating that we would not accept research funding from Drinkwise because we believed that the alcohol industry has undue influence on its research and policy agenda.

Drinkwise was originally established by the alcohol industry and subsequently part funded by the Howard government to educate Australians to drink wisely. Many of the public health field were sceptical of its intentions because in addition to deriving its core funding from the alcohol industry, its board is dominated by the alcohol industry: 6 of its current 11 person board are alcohol industry representatives and two “community representatives” on the board have a history of working for or with the alcohol industry.

Its CEO is also on public record as emphasising the drinks industry’s contributions to the economy while opposing as “old fashioned” public policies that have been shown to be effective, namely, alcohol taxation and regulation of alcohol advertising and promotion.

The MJA gave the Chair of the Drinkwise Board, the Honourable Trish Worth, an opportunity to reply to the letter in the MJA and she did so.

Nonetheless many signatories to the letter subsequently received a personal letter (which attached a copy of the MJA letter). This stated that some of the Drinkwise Board members had felt they had been “defamed” by our letter. It also claimed that we had impugned the integrity of the academics who had accepted Drinkwise funds.

Some recipients of the letter saw this as a warning that they could be the subject of defamation action if they continued to make such criticisms.

This letter should be more widely known about by the public health community, especially when it comes from a body which has received $5 million in public funds.

Should the government continue to fund an organisation that attacks researchers for exercising their right to refuse to accept money from them?

Peter Fray

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