The drinks industry is misrepresenting the evidence about alcohol-related cancer risks, according to research by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.
While drinking is a ‘well-established’ risk factor for a number of cancers, including liver, breast, colorectal and oral cavity – and accounts for around 4 per cent of new UK cases each year – the drinks industry is misleading the public through ‘activities that have parallels with those of the tobacco industry’, says the review.
The research team analysed cancer-related information on the websites and publications of nearly 30 industry-funded organisations worldwide over a two-month period, and found that most showed ‘some sort of distortion or misrepresentation’ of evidence, particularly around breast and colorectal cancers The most common approach was in ‘presenting the relationship between alcohol and cancer as highly complex’, say the researchers – with the implication that there was no evidence of a ‘consistent or independent’ link – while others included ‘selective omission’, ‘misrepresenting or obfuscating the nature or size’ of the risk and ‘claiming inaccurately that there is no risk for light or “moderate” drinking’.
‘The weight of scientific evidence is clear – drinking alcohol increases the risk of some of the most common forms of cancer,’ said professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Mark Petticrew. ‘Public awareness of this risk is low, and it has been argued that greater public awareness, particularly of the risk of breast cancer, poses a significant threat to the alcohol industry. Our analysis suggests that the major global alcohol producers may attempt to mitigate this by disseminating misleading information about cancer through their “responsible drinking” bodies.’
There were ‘obvious parallels’ with the tobacco industry’s ‘decades-long campaign to mislead the public about the risk of cancer, which also used front organisations and corporate social activities’, he added.
A spokesperson for Drinkaware responded by saying that, although funded by
donations from ‘alcohol producers, supermarkets and others’, it was not an industry organisation and that all of its health information was approved by a medical advisory panel of ‘senior and independent’ experts. The panel ‘regularly reviews peer-reviewed medical evidence and how Drinkaware presents this information to the public, to ensure that it is doing so in an accurate and reliable manner’, the spokesperson stated.
However, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, said that the report ‘clearly shows the alcohol industry misleading the public about the risks associated with alcohol’ and that it was ‘not just heavy drinkers’ who were at risk. ‘With only one in ten people aware of the link between alcohol and cancer people have both a need and a right to clear information about the health risks of drinking alcohol.’
How alcohol industry organisations mislead the public about alcohol and cancer, in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, at onlinelibrary.wiley.com