Alcohol industry downplays cancer risk, researchers find

Alcohol industry photo

The alcohol industry is using the same kind of disinformation and distortion that the tobacco industry used to obscure the link between smoking and cancer, according to a study by researchers in London and Sweden.

Led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine with the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, the team analyzed the information relating to cancer which appears on the websites and documents of nearly 30 alcohol industry organizations around the world between September 2016 and December 2016. Most of the websites (24 out of 26) showed some sort of distortion or misrepresentation of the evidence about alcohol-related cancer risk, with breast and colorectal cancers being the most common focus of misrepresentation, the researchers 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,” said Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and lead author of the study. “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.”

Petticrew and colleagues said the most common industry tactic involves presenting the relationship between alcohol and cancer as highly complex, with the implication or statement that there is no evidence of a consistent or independent link. Others include denying that any relationship exists or claiming inaccurately that there is no risk for light or ‘moderate’ drinking, as well discussing a wide range of real and potential risk factors, thus presenting alcohol as just one risk among many.


The researchers say policymakers and public health bodies should reconsider their relationships to these alcohol industry bodies, as the industry is involved in developing alcohol policy in many countries, and disseminates health information to the public.

Well-established risk

Alcohol consumption is a well-established risk factor for a range of cancers, including oral cavity, liver, breast and colorectal cancers, and accounts for about 4% of new cancer cases annually in the UK, the study said. There is limited evidence that alcohol consumption protects against some cancers, such as renal and ovary cancers, but in 2016 the UK’s Committee on Carcinogenicity concluded that the evidence is inconsistent, and the increased risk of other cancers as a result of drinking alcohol far outweighs any possible decreased risk.

This new study analysed the information which is disseminated by 27 AI-funded organizations, most commonly “social aspects and public relations organisations” (SAPROs), and similar bodies. The researchers aimed to determine the extent to which the alcohol industry fully and accurately communicates the scientific evidence on alcohol and cancer to consumers.

Through qualitative analysis of this information they identified three main industry strategies:

  • Denying: disputing any link with cancer, or selective omission of the relationship;
  • Distortion: mentioning some risk of cancer, but misrepresenting or obfuscating the nature or size of that risk; and
  • Distraction: focusing discussion away from the independent effects of alcohol on common cancers.

A common strategy was “selective omission” – avoiding mention of cancer while discussing other health risks or appearing to selectively omit specific cancers. The researchers say that one of the most important findings is that the industry materials appear to specifically omit or misrepresent the evidence on breast and colorectal cancer. One possible reason is that these are among the most common cancers, and therefore may be more well-known than oral and esophageal cancers.

When breast cancer is mentioned the researchers found that 21 of the organizations present no, or misleading, information on breast cancer, such as presenting many alternative possible risk factors for breast cancer, without acknowledging the independent risk of alcohol consumption.

“Existing evidence of strategies employed by the alcohol industry suggests that this may not be a matter of simple error. This has obvious parallels with the global tobacco industry’s decades-long campaign to mislead the public about the risk of cancer, which also used front organizations and corporate social activities,” Pettigrew said. “It has often been assumed that, by and large, the AI, unlike the tobacco industry, has tended not to deny the harms of alcohol. However, through its provision of misleading information it can maintain what has been called ‘the illusion of righteousness’ in the eyes of policymakers, while negating any significant impact on alcohol consumption and profits.”

 

About the Author

Truman Lewis
Truman has been a bureau chief and correspondent in D.C., Los Angeles, Phoenix and elsewhere, reporting for radio, television, print and news services, for more than 30 years. Most recently, he has reported extensively on health and consumer issues for ConsumerAffairs.com and FairfaxNews.com.