Drinking increases the risk of a wide range of health conditions including high blood pressure, some cancers and depression. Meanwhile women who drink are 20% more likely to get breast cancer than those who don’t, according to Public Health England.
Yet despite the facts, many organisations within the alcohol industry are choosing to “distort” or “misrepresent” this evidence, say researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.
For the review, researchers analysed information related to cancer which appeared on the websites and documents of nearly 30 alcohol industry organisations between September 2016 and December 2016.
They said 24 out of the 26 websites “showed some sort of distortion or misrepresentation of the evidence about alcohol-related cancer risk”.
Researchers identified three main industry strategies:
:: Denying or disputing any link with cancer, or selective omission of the relationship.
:: Distortion - by mentioning some risk of cancer, but misrepresenting or obfuscating the nature or size of that risk.
:: Distraction - by focusing discussion away from the independent effects of alcohol on common cancers.
Writing in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, researchers said policymakers and public health bodies should reconsider their relationships to these alcohol industry bodies.
Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and lead author of the study, said: “The weight of scientific evidence is clear - drinking alcohol increases the risk of some of the most common forms of cancer, including several common cancers.
“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.”
Public Health England (PHE) estimates that 10 million people drink at levels that increase their risk of harm.
Commenting on the review, Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, told HuffPost UK: “Alcohol is a preventable cause of cancer and is linked to seven different types, including some of the most common like breast and bowel cancer.
“Our research has found that only one in 10 adults in the UK know that alcohol can cause cancer. It’s important to raise levels of awareness so people can make informed choices about how much alcohol they drink.
“Attempts to avoid communicating this evidence, or to mislead the public about it, could have real consequences for public health. We know people want to stack the odds in their favour to help prevent cancer if they can, so it’s vitally important that they have the right information to do so.”
The results of the latest review are important because the alcohol industry is involved in conveying health information to people around the world, researchers said.
They suggested major international alcohol companies may be misleading shareholders about the risks of their products, potentially leaving the industry open to litigation in some countries.
Professor Petticrew said: “Some public health bodies liaise with the industry organisations that we analysed. Despite their undoubtedly good intentions, it is unethical for them to lend their expertise and legitimacy to industry campaigns which mislead the public about alcohol-related harms.
“Our findings are also a clear reminder of the risks of giving the alcohol industry the responsibility of informing the public about alcohol and health.”
In response to Petticrew’s remarks, a Drinkaware spokesperson said despite the fact it is funded by donations from alcohol producers, supermarkets and others, “it is not an industry organisation”.
“The Drinkaware Trust is an independent alcohol education charity with a clear remit to provide evidence-based information and tackle alcohol related harm,” they told HuffPost UK.
“The Drinkaware website carries extensive information about alcohol and health, all of which has been approved by Drinkaware’s Medical Advisory Panel which is made up 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.
“Its recent review of Drinkaware’s cancer information, which is extensive, has confirmed that the information we are providing accurately reflects the most recent research evidence.”
Alcohol Concern has recently merged with Alcohol Research UK. It will provide information “so that policymakers, health practitioners and the general public can make evidence-based decisions about alcohol”.
CEO, Richard Piper, added: “We agree that all stakeholders, including the drinks industry, have a responsibility to promote factual public knowledge. This means reflecting the latest evidence and being clear about the scale of risk, as set out in the 2016 Chief Medical Officer’s report on low-risk drinking guidelines.”
While the review’s authors recognise there are limitations to the study, they did say there’s an “urgent need” to examine further materials to assess the nature and extent of the distortion of evidence. They are concerned it may extend to other health information like cardiovascular disease.
Professor David Nutt, from Imperial College London, said we need to urgently find a safer alternative to alcohol in order to protect the nation’s health.
“The intrinsic toxicity of alcohol means that if it was treated like any other food the maximal allowable exposure per year would be 150ml,” he told HuffPost UK.
“This proves that we ignore the harms of alcohol because we enjoy the pleasure it gives.
“Modern science now has given us compounds that mimic the pleasure with massively reduced harms. Investment in these should now be a public health priority.”