When it comes to the risk of cancer associated with alcohol consumption, there is a significant disconnect between scientific evidence and public opinion.
The evidence of the independent link between alcohol consumption and cancer is clear, as emphasised by recent comprehensive reviews by the UK Committee on Carcinogenicity* (Committee on Carcinogenicity of chemicals in food, 2015), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, 2012). Drinking alcohol can cause a range of cancers, including oral cavity, pharynx (cavity behind the nose and mouth), larynx (voice box), oesophagus (gullet), colorectal (bowel and colon), breast and liver cancer. Furthermore, the risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat and breast increases with any amount consumed on a regular basis (Department of Health, 2016). However, public awareness of this link remains low, with a 2016 survey reporting only 12.9% of respondents identifying cancer as a potential consequence of drinking too much alcohol (Buykx et al., 2016).
What does this have to do with the alcohol industry? Well, in the UK and many other countries, alcohol-industry funded organisations, called Social Aspects Public Relations Organisations (SAPROs), present themselves as sources of health information to the public, particularly around ‘responsible drinking’, underage drinking and drink driving (Maani Hessari and Petticrew, 2017). These organisations have been criticised for their inherent conflict of interest, as they are linked to large multinational alcohol producers, for whom a large proportion of profits come from harmful drinking (Casswell et al., 2016). The industry has a track record of focusing on education and individual responsibility, while lobbying against population-level measures to reduce alcohol-related harm (Babor and Robaina, 2013), even though these are evidence-based (Burton et al., 2017), and form the basis of the WHO Global Alcohol Strategy, in which alcohol producers participated (World Health Organisation, 2010).
Considering the role of the alcohol industry in providing information to consumers, we decided to examine the extent to which the industry fully and accurately communicated the scientific evidence on alcohol and cancer. To do this, we systematically examined the content of 27 industry-funded organisations or websites. In each case, we analysed how information regarding alcohol and cancer was presented, and whether the statements they made about cancer risk were in agreement with the scientific evidence, as presented in the Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) and IARC reviews.
We found that most alcohol industry SAPROs appeared to misrepresent evidence by denying, distorting or distracting from links to cancer, particularly breast cancer (Petticrew et al., 2017, Petticrew et al., 2018). A full list of examples can be found in our paper and the supplementary information, but as an example of denial, consider this:
“Moderate wine intake may actually reduce the risk of oesophagus, thyroid, lung, kidney and colorectal cancers as well as Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma…Concerning breast cancer, there may also be a protective role for wine.” [Wine Information Council].When some risk was acknowledged, it was often presented alongside a range of other confounders, thus undermining the evidence that there is an independent relationship. For example:
“Alcohol has been identified as a known human carcinogen by IARC, along with over 1,000 others, including solvents and chemical compounds, certain drugs, viral infection, solar radiation from exposure to sunlight, and processed meat.” [International Alliance for Responsible Drinking]Or in another instance:
“Not all heavy drinkers get cancer, as multiple risk factors are involved in the development of cancers including genetics and family history of cancer, age, environmental factors, and behavioural variables, as well as social determinants of health.” [Australia: Drinkwise].It is not clear how the consumer is meant to interpret this information. The use of such descriptions to describe risk of cancer from smoking would in essence be both equally correct, and equally misleading. In fact, this type of language is highly reminiscent of arguments used by the tobacco industry, which emphasise the complex causes of lung cancer and coronary heart disease, in order to help deny the scientific evidence and identify other independent risk factors for smoking-related diseases to deflect focus from their products (Petticrew and Lee, 2011).
Since the publication of our findings (Petticrew et al., 2017, Petticrew et al., 2018), additional examples of alcohol industry representatives openly disputing the link between alcohol and cancer continue to emerge. For example, a recent study in the Yukon, Canada, examining the effects of adding a cancer warning label to alcohol (as one of three potential labelling options) has been suspended due to industry pressure.
Perhaps even more striking: as part of the ongoing debate in Ireland regarding the Public Health Alcohol Bill (PHAB), when a physician noted on live TV that alcohol was a carcinogen, a leading alcohol industry spokesperson countered inaccurately that alcohol was in fact, not a carcinogen, and that there were “…as many studies, medical studies, as there are on the ‘pro’ side…” (clip below).
Dr Ciara Kelly and Patricia Callan clash on Claire Byrne Live pic.twitter.com/KyXqpgnJxj— RTÉ ClaireByrneLive (@ClaireByrneLive) September 18, 2017
It has been argued that greater public awareness, particularly of the risk of breast cancer, poses a significant threat to the alcohol industry (Connor, 2017). In response to other threats to profits, there is evidence that the industry has attempted to engage in “denialism” (Katikireddi and Hilton, 2015), and it appears this may also be the case for cancer, particularly breast cancer.
Currently, the alcohol industry remains involved in developing alcohol policy in many countries, and in disseminating health information to the public, including school children. Our research findings, which build on existing evidence regarding the activities of SAPROs (Babor and Robaina, 2013, McCambridge et al., 2014, Moodie et al., 2013), should be cause for a re-evaluation of such arrangements. The World Health Organisation has previously stated that ‘In the view of the WHO, the alcohol industry has no role in the formulation of alcohol policies, which must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests.’(Chan, 2013). The clear and obvious similarities to tobacco industry tactics that we report, which reflect the inherent conflict of interest, serve as a reminder that policies are but one aspect at risk of industry distortion.
All views expressed are those of the author.
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*Carcinogen is any substance or agent that promotes the formation of cancer
Image: ‘Spilling wine’ (3375802661_fc4ff615ba_z) by Gunnar Grimnes via Flickr.com, copyright © 2009: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gromgull/3375802661