Drinks industry downplaying alcohol-cancer link – report

Portman Group and Drinkaware among those accused by academics of obscuring heightened risks of cancer in drinkers

The drinks industry is misleading the public by downplaying and misrepresenting the link between alcohol and cancer – especially breast cancer – in a bid to protect its profits, new research claims.

Alcohol firms and “responsible drinking” bodies they fund are denying that drink causes cancer and distorting the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, in information they provide to consumers, according to the British-led team of international experts behind the findings.

Despite portraying themselves as socially responsible, many drinks producers are also trying to distract attention from alcohol’s well-established role as a key cause of cancer, confuse consumers and blame other factors, it is claimed.

Their “denial, distortion, distraction” tactics closely resemble those cigarette companies used to limit exposure of tobacco’s role as a main cause of cancer. They are being deployed in particular on bowel and breast cancer, two of Britain’s most common and most lethal forms of the disease, the academics allege.

“The alcohol industry appears to be engaged in the extensive misrepresentation of evidence about the alcohol-related risk of cancer. These activities have parallels with those of the tobacco industry”, according to a study by Professor Mark Petticrew, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and colleagues.

They analysed the accuracy of information about alcohol and cancer carried on websites and in publications produced by 26 drinks producers and “social aspects and public relations organisations” worldwide they use to advise consumers about alcohol and health. Many were guilty of manipulation of evidence, they concluded.

The Portman Group and Drinkaware, two UK bodies financed by the alcohol industry, are among those accused of being involved in what the researchers say is systematic “denialism” of the heightened risks of cancer from drinking.

“It’s extremely worrying that the UK public are not being given independent, honest information about the health risks associated with drinking,” said Katherine Brown, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, a thinktank.

For example, of the 26 sources of material analysed by researchers, 20 either did not discuss alcohol’s role in causing breast cancer, or did so but included inaccurate or misleading information about the link.

More than 100 studies since 2007 have shown that alcohol, even in moderate amounts, increases the risk of breast cancer. Despite that, the research highlights how information published on Drinkaware’s website last December pointed to a range of other factors as possible causes, including a woman’s gender, age and family history, in what the authors say was a bid to deflect attention from alcohol’s role in increasing cancer risk.

The industry may be using such tactics because it hopes to increase the amount of alcohol drunk by women and does not want the public to learn about its link with the disease, suggest the authors, whose findings are published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review.

IARC, the World Health Organization’s cancer arm, and the UK government’s committee on carcinogenicity have both said the evidence showed alcohol increased the risk of cancers of the mouth and throat, larynx, oesophagus, upper aerodigestive tract, breast and liver as well as the colon, rectum and pancreas.

The findings also claim that both Drinkaware and the Portman Group have sought to play down alcohol’s potentially damaging role in causing cancer by claiming that risk only applies to heavy or binge drinking; confusing the relationship between alcohol and cancer by highlighting a range of other risk factors; and also by stressing the complexity of risk to suggest that there is little evidence of risk, when the opposite is true.

For example, the brewer SAB Miller’s talkingalcohol.com website “states inaccurately that there is no link between alcohol and most cancers except for ‘mainly cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract’ and the liver,” the paper says. Similarly, the Portman Group says that “the vast majority of cancer types are not associated with alcohol consumption”.

While there are more than 200 types of cancer, alcohol is recognised by key medical authorities as a cause of two of the commonest: breast and bowel cancer, which between them result in almost 100,000 new diagnoses a year in the UK alone.

The Portman Group denied the academics’ claims that it had misrepresented the evidence on alcohol and cancer in its response to the government consultation on updated safe drinking guidelines, unveiled in January last year. They promote responsible drinking and responsible marketing of alcohol, they said.

“It is vital that academic research and commentary about lifestyle risks is presented fairly, accurately and in context so that people can make rational and informed choices in their everyday lives.

“In the UK, producers and retailers support many charities and organisations that provide consumers with practical and evidence-based information about alcohol and their health and have a long history of promoting responsible drinking messages,” said John Timothy, its chief executive.

Drinkaware, which aims to educate the public about drinking and reduce alcohol harm, also rejected the claims made about it. “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,” a spokesperson said.

“[The panel’s] 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.”

Chris Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, accused the authors of cherry-picking quotes that did not fairly reflect scientific evidence. “This is a diatribe disguised as a study that seeks to create a false narrative in which businesses always lie and anti-alcohol campaigners always tell the truth,” he said.

The Department of Health rejected the academics’ suggestion that ministers should stop trusting alcohol bodies to inform the public about alcohol and cancer because the findings showed such large-scale distortion and omission of key facts.

“We are clear on the links between excessive alcohol consumption and cancer, supported by the UK CMOs’ [chief medical officers’] guidelines. Public Health England regularly promotes the message that you can reduce your risk of cancers by making lifestyle changes through national campaigns like One You,” a spokesman said.


Denis Campbell Health policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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