Alcohol industry misleads public on cancer link – Expert Reaction

A UK study has found that alcohol industry groups misrepresent the alcohol-related risk of cancer in public information.

By surveying websites and documents from 27 alcohol industry organisations, including Australia’s Drinkwise, the researchers found denial and misrepresentation of the cancer risk from consuming alcohol, and distraction from the effects of alcohol on common cancers like breast and bowel.

They concluded that the alcohol industry was using similar tactics as the tobacco industry, to the detriment of public health. The study was published today in Drug and Alcohol Review.

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the study, please feel free to use these comments in your reporting. 

Professor Sally Casswell, director, Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation (SHORE), Massey University, comments:

“This is valuable detailed research; it identifies the extent and ways in which the alcohol industry misrepresents evidence about harm from alcohol, in this case, the causal relationship with a number of cancers. It joins a growing body of research showing how the transnational alcohol corporations, directly or via their funded PR organisations, attempt to subvert health promotion messages (awareness of alcohol’s role in cancer remains, as yet, relatively low).

“The authors of the article highlight the conflict of interest between the objective of the producers and marketers of alcohol, which is to increase their profits, and aspirations of health and well-being. This raises important questions about the way many governments allow industry input into development of alcohol policy and health promotion; this would not be accepted in relation to the tobacco industry and there is, similarly, no place for the alcohol industry.”

Professor Jennie Connor, Chair in Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago, comments:

“This is important research because it takes a systematic approach, and finds overwhelmingly that the alcohol industry misrepresents well-established science and research in progress. This serves the industry’s purpose of interfering with the establishment of reliable public knowledge about health effects of drinking.

“Researchers in this area regularly experience the dishonesty and disrespect of alcohol industry spokespeople first-hand. Contradiction of well-established evidence in the media is commonplace in NZ as elsewhere, and the health professionals and researchers involved are routinely undermined and ridiculed in the process. There have been examples of this in media reports on alcohol and cancer in NZ in the last two years, following publication and dissemination of research, largely orchestrated by Spirits New Zealand.

“This new publication demonstrates beyond doubt that misrepresentation of science is an organised and concerted effort of the alcohol industry, and not just incompetence or local hostility to advocates for better alcohol policy.

“This work should strengthen our resolve to deal with conflicts of interest between the alcohol industry and policy makers. Professional organisations are increasingly monitoring and restricting relationships between researchers and alcohol industry bodies, to avoid inherent conflicts of interest. However, some governance bodies still have enthusiasm about having ‘the industry at the table’ when making decisions on policy, rather than excluding them outright on the basis of their complete conflict of interest and their track record of misrepresenting evidence.

“The study found that the alcohol industry is highly motivated to obscure the link of alcohol consumption with bowel and breast cancer in particular. These diseases are among the most common causes of cancer death in NZ and similar countries, and more people have experience with these conditions. Establishing these links in the public mind is, therefore, a significant threat to the industry, as it makes it impossible for people to believe it is only a small minority of heavy drinkers who could be affected.”

Our colleagues at the Australian SMC also gathered the following expert reaction.

Professor Sandra Jones is Pro Vice-Chancellor for Engagement and Director of the Centre for Health and Social Research (CHaSR) at Australian Catholic University

“This study was the first to analyse the information that alcohol industry SAPROs (social aspects and public relations organisations) provide to consumers about the links between alcohol and cancer.  A strength of the study was its inclusion of 27 organisations from a range of English-speaking countries, including Australia.

“A particularly disturbing finding from the study was the exclusion of information on breast cancer, given the clear scientific evidence of a link between breast cancer and alcohol consumption. More than 17,000 Australian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. Alcohol consumption is one of the known modifiable causes of breast cancer, but many women are not aware of this association.

“The industry tactics identified in this study that are used to obscure information about the link between alcohol and cancer– denial/omission, distortion and distraction – resonate with those they use to reframe conversations about alcohol-related violence.

“In Australia, Drinkwise places a particular focus on the ‘drinking culture’ as the primary cause of alcohol-related harm and changes in individual behavior as the solution.”

Prof Ross Gordon is an Associate Professor in Marketing at Macquarie University and President of the Australian Association of Social Marketing

“The alcohol industry has a history of contesting research that identifies alcohol harms. I learned this while researching the links between exposure to alcohol marketing and adolescent drinking.

“It’s not surprising that the Petticrew study finds that the alcohol industry disseminates misrepresentative information about alcohol and cancer. Contesting research evidence base is often part of the stakeholder marketing strategy of the alcohol industry. This has parallels with the tobacco industry who contested the links between smoking and cancer for years.

“The Petticrew study uses qualitative analysis of alcohol industry websites and reports, to identify denial or omission, distortion, or distraction regarding the effects of alcohol on common cancers. This is an appropriate research design. However, a noted limitation of the study is that that the alcohol industry disseminates information through several other organisations and communication channels (e.g. Twitter or advertising campaigns). These were not included in the study. So, further research that examines other industry sources and channels of information on alcohol and cancer would be helpful.

“Given the significant human cost of cancer in Australia, it is important that information on risk factors are accurate. The alcohol industry has a social responsibility to provide accurate information to Australians. If not, then Australian policymakers may need to intervene to ensure this is done to protect consumers and enable them to make informed choices.”

Dr Emma Miller is a public health researcher at Flinders University

“This study underscores the perceptions that many public health professionals already have about alcohol industry funded/affiliated public information services. While the stated aim of these organisations is to promote ‘responsible’ drinking, the misinformation and obfuscation common in their messages (‘denial’, ‘distortion’ and ‘distraction’) is more about promoting the sale of alcohol.

“Alcohol has been identified as a class one carcinogen and it is strongly associated with many cancers – particularly breast cancer in women and bowel cancer in men – yet many people are unaware of this.

“Let’s put this in the Australian context where rates of breast cancer has been increasing at the same time as women in the most risky age group have been drinking more alcohol. As the study points out, groups such as Drinkwise in Australia are particularly likely to provide misleading information about breast cancer. This may be because the alcohol industry is attempting to counter evidence about the link because women are more aware of breast cancer or, even more cynically, they are attempting to address any threat to the market of women drinkers they desire to grow.

“Whatever the reason, it is likely to be part of the business model to lessen the impact of authentic public health voices. In all the confusion, however, breast cancer rates will continue to climb in Australian women.”

Terry Slevin is Education & Research Director at Cancer Council Western Australia

“There is no doubt the alcohol industry understands and is concerned about community response to the established and growing evidence linking alcohol consumption to cancer risk. An education campaign linking alcohol with breast cancer risk – run in Western Australia in 2010/11 – resulted in a large increase in women reporting the intention to reduce their drinking. That means less sales, and the industry will always resist action that causes downward pressure on consumption.

“Cancer remains the health issue that generates the greatest fear and emotional response in the community. That is particularly so in middle-aged and older people who see their own peers increasingly getting cancer diagnoses. People in that baby boomer generation are also in senior decision making roles. So the industry that sells the product is keen to muddy the waters about what is a clear link. For too many people the alcohol and cancer story is new news. The more we drink the more we increase the risk of cancer. This is another inconvenient truth to add to the list.

“I congratulate the authors on an important and insightful paper.”