A study has suggested that the alcohol industry uses misinformation and omission to mislead the public about links between cancer risk and alcohol. The researchers are from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and compare the tactics used by the alcohol industry as similar to those used by the tobacco industry for decades to confuse the public. The article was published in the Drug and Alcohol Review journal, which is available to read online. The researchers focused on website information.
The scientists analysed the websites and documents from 27 alcohol industry organisations. They checked the information particularly relating to cancer risk and alcohol. They identified three main strategies: denying or disputing the evidence that cancer risk is increased by alcohol, distorting the facts about the cancer risk or distracting away from the effects of alcohol on common cancers. They particularly focussed on distraction away from breast cancer and colorectal cancer.
Scientific studies have been putting forward the case for linking cancer with alcohol since 1988. The first study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, suggested links with oral cavity, oesophagus and liver cancers. In 2007, colorectal and breast cancer were added to the list. Further studies have strengthened the links and up-to-date studies are suggesting that low levels of consumption can still increase the risk. The links between ovarian and prostate cancer remain less clear. Reported protective benefits such as reduced risk for kidney, thyroid, ovary and lung cancers are limited and unclear and the research has suggested that the risk factors for other cancers outweighs other decreased risks. The science suggests that drinking alcohol increases the cancer risk for some of the most common forms of the disease.
The alcohol industry has disputed many of the studies’ claims. Health information is offered though social aspects and public relations organisations, with the stated aims of encouraging responsible drinking and informing consumers, however there is an argument for seeing the companies’ efforts as promoting ineffective interventions, misrepresenting evidence, influencing public perception and maintaining profits.
The researchers found that most websites for the alcohol industry included significant misrepresentations of the evidence, omissions or misrepresentations. Some of the suggestions include that light to moderate drinking is not included significantly in research on cancer risk. Some of the websites highlight other possible effects of drinking on the body including dependence, liver cirrhosis, pancreas problems, physical and emotional problems, brain damage and death, but do not mention cancer.
The information offered by the alcohol industry might also try to misrepresent the relationship between the disease and drink as complex or related to set behaviour such as heavy or binge drinking. This is misleading as there is an increased risk of some common cancers at low levels of alcohol consumption. They may also claim that the information from studies is incomplete or that there is no expert consensus which may cause the public to dismiss the information. The claims that there may be some protective effect of alcohol could also help to muddle the information provided. The websites will also discuss the role of other factors in the risk of cancer such as age-related risk, the risk from inherited genetics, smoking and environmental factors, which can detract from the role of alcohol which is the one being discussed. There is also a lack of information on the links found between breast cancer, colorectal cancer and alcohol. It is either omitted or not acknowledged.
The study analysed all the information provided by the major international alcohol industry corporate social responsibility bodies. It argues that public awareness of the risk of developing cancer from the consumption of alcohol is low and that were awareness to improve, that this would pose a threat to company profits. Responsible drinking bodies seemed to promote misleading information about health risks and the industry uses the misrepresentation of scientific evidence to lobby against policies such as the minimum unit pricing of alcohol. The scientists did not include use of social media by the companies, but argued that it was likely that these messages would be similar to those expressed by the websites.
The scientists felt that their study merited urgent further study, because the alcohol industry has significant access to government health departments, and has access to partner or stakeholder status at World Health Organisation and United Nations meetings relevant to alcohol.
The alcohol information organisations set up by the alcohol industry have denied that their websites contain misinformation or omissions related to cancer risk.
Petticrew, M. Hessari, NM, Knai, C, Weiderpass, E, How alcohol industry organisations mislead the public about alcohol and cancer, Drug and Alcohol Review, September 2017, DOI: 10.1111/dar.12596