The drinks industry has been accused of downplaying the link between alcohol and cancer, according to a new study looking at the accuracy of health information circulated by alcohol companies.
The study, by researchers from the UK, Sweden and Norway, analysed the comprehensiveness and accuracy of health information published by the alcohol industry about the link between drinking alcohol and getting cancer.
They looked at the content of websites and documents from 27 alcohol industry organisations from around the world, including the UK, the US and Australia.
Between 24 and 26 of the organisations were found to publish misrepresentations of the evidence about the link between alcohol and cancer on their websites.
Three main strategies were found: denying, omitting or disputing the evidence that alcohol consumption increases cancer risk; mentioning cancer but distorting the level of risk; and focusing attention away from the independent effects of alcohol on cancer risk.
Specific tactics that the researchers claim these companies are using include claiming that the risk of some common cancers only exists for heavy, excessive or binge drinkers; and listing the effects of alcohol consumption on health, but not mentioning cancer.
The researchers claim that some organisations included information on the protective effect of alcohol on some cancers, which provides a confusing picture of overall risk.
The study also found that misinformation was particularly presented around breast cancer and colorectal cancer.
Of the 27 organisations looked at, 21 presented no or misleading information on alcohol and breast cancer, and 22 presented no or misleading information on alcohol and colorectal cancer.
Well-established cause of cancer
Alcohol is reported to be responsible for approximately 4% of new cases of cancer ever year (about 12,800 cases), and more than 100 studies over the last 10 years have shown that alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer.
Cancer Research UK says that alcohol is ‘one of the most well-established causes of cancer’. Around 30% of mouth and upper throat cancers are caused by alcohol consumption, and bowel cancer accounts for the greatest overall number of cases linked to alcohol (4,800 cases a year).
The UK government recommends that the maximum people should drink is 14 units of alcohol a week, and that while this level can still increase cancer risk, the overall increase in risk is small.
As part of their corporate and social responsibility, the UK alcohol industry has to share information with their customers about the risks of alcohol.
The authors of this latest study claim that alcohol companies do not want the public to learn about the link with cancer.
They even accuse the alcohol industry of using tactics similar to those used by cigarette companies to limit exposure to tobacco as the main cause of cancer. They say in their study that the tobacco industry campaigned for decades to “mislead the public about the risk of cancer”, and that they developed arguments that made the link more complex than it is, in order to “deny the epidemiological evidence”.
In an article published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review with the results of the study, the authors conclude: “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.
“This finding is important because the industry is involved in developing alcohol policy in many countries, and in disseminating health information to the public, including schoolchildren.”
The authors of the study have called for an urgent investigation into the scale and nature of the activities of the alcohol industry in how they provide information to the public.
The comparison to the tobacco industry is a particularly strong argument, and one that will no doubt make government and policy-makers sit up and take notice.