Alcohol industry misleading the public about alcohol-related cancer risk

8 September 2017: The alcohol industry is misrepresenting evidence about the alcohol-related risk of cancer with activities that have parallels with those of the tobacco industry, according to new research published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review.

Led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine with the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, the team analysed the information relating to cancer which appears on the websites and documents of nearly 30 alcohol industry organisations around the world between September 2016 and December 2016. Most of the organisational 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 most common approach 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.

Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & 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.”

The researchers say there is an urgent need to examine other industry websites, documents, social media and other materials in order to assess the nature and extent of the distortion of evidence, and whether it extends to other health information, for example, in relation to cardiovascular disease.

Commenting on the study, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the AHA, said:

“This report clearly shows the alcohol industry misleading the public about the risks associated with alcohol. The link between alcohol and cancer is now well established, and it is not just heavy drinkers who are at risk. This is reflected in the guidelines issued by the UK’s Chief Medical Officers that stated that the risk of developing a range of illnesses, including cancer, increased with any amount of alcohol you drink.

“With only 1 in 10 people aware of the link between alcohol and cancer people have both a need and a right to clear information about the health risks of drinking alcohol. We are calling for mandatory health warnings on alcohol labels and independent government-backed campaigns to help the public make informed choices about their drinking. In addition, policymakers need to take bold action with evidenced based measures. The time has come to stop relying on voluntary agreements with an alcohol industry that is putting profits before people’s health.”