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Alcohol industry is misleading consumers about alcohol-cancer link, researchers say

The two most frequent areas of misinformation involve breast cancer and colorectal cancer.

The consumption of alcohol is considered a well-established risk factor for seven types of cancer.

The alcohol industry is misleading the public by misrepresenting the evidence linking alcohol with cancer — especially breast and colorectal cancers — according to a new study by an international team of researchers.

The three key tactics used by the industry are denial, distortion and distraction — the same ones used for decades by the tobacco industry to downplay the link between its products and cancer, the researchers also say.

“It has often been assumed that, by and large, the [alcohol industry], unlike the tobacco industry, has tended not to deny the harms of alcohol,” write the study’s authors. “Our analysis shows that, on the contrary, the global [alcohol industry] is currently actively disseminating misinformation about alcohol and cancer risk.”

As background information in the study points out, the consumption of alcohol is considered a well-established risk factor for seven types of cancer: mouth/pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum and breast. Some research suggests that alcohol consumption protects against a few other cancers, but that evidence is limited and inconsistent — and is far outweighed by the evidence that shows an increased risk.

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Indeed, health experts estimate that alcohol contributes to 5.8 percent of all cancer deaths worldwide.

“The weight of scientific evidence is therefore clear that drinking increases the risk of some of the most common cancers,” the study’s authors write. 

That increased risk begins even at low levels of consumption, they add.

Denial, distortion and distraction

For the study, researchers analyzed consumer-oriented websites and documents published between September and December 2016 by 26 organizations linked to the alcohol industry. All the organizations were in English-speaking countries or had information available in English. The researchers looked to see if the information gave consumers a complete and accurate description of the scientific evidence regarding alcohol consumption and cancer.

They found that 24 of the 26 websites significantly misrepresented or omitted scientific evidence about the relationship between alcohol consumption and cancer. They also identified three basic tactics used by the organizations to mislead and confuse:  

Denial/omission: denying, or disputing any link with cancer, or selective omission of the relationship. This approach includes:

  • Denying that any relationship exists, or claiming inaccurately that there is no risk for light or ‘moderate’ drinking.
  • Selective omission: avoiding mention of cancer in general, or of specific cancers.

Distortion: mentioning some risk of cancer, but misrepresenting or obfuscating the nature or size of that risk. This is done by: 

  • Claiming or implying that the risk applies only to particular patterns of drinking (heavy drinking or binge drinking).
  • Claiming or implying that, as knowledge of the mechanism is incomplete, the evidence of a causal relationship is not trustworthy, and/or claiming a lack of expert consensus.
  • Claiming protective effects of alcohol on some cancers, thus confusing the picture of overall risk.

Distraction: focusing discussion away from the independent effects of alcohol on common cancers. This is done by: 

  • Minimising the role of alcohol by pointing to a wide range of other risk factors for cancer.
  • Emphasising less common cancers, and emphasizing cancer “types” rather than cancer prevalence.

Glaring omissions

The two most frequent areas of misinformation involved breast cancer and colorectal cancer. The study found that 21 of the organizations presented no or misleading information on breast cancer, and 22 did the same for colorectal cancer.

“Some websites single out these cancers (but not others) to dispute or deny the increase in risk,” the study’s authors point out.

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As the researchers note, greater public awareness about the risk of alcohol consumption and these two common — and high-profile — cancers is particularly problematic for the alcohol industry, as it could have the biggest impact on sales.

But don’t expect the alcohol industry to pull back on its misrepresentation of the scientific evidence regarding alcohol consumption and cancer any time soon.

“The [alcohol industry], unlike the tobacco industry, still has significant access in many countries to government health departments,” the authors of the study explain. “It is also active in the international policy arena, with, for example, partner or stakeholder status at World Health Organization and United Nations meetings relevant to alcohol, on occasions when the tobacco industry is excluded.”

“This study shows that the [alcohol industry] uses similar tactics to the tobacco industry to the same ends: to protect its profits, to the detriment of public health,” they add. “The full scale and nature of these activities requires urgent investigation.”

FYI: The study was published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, where it can be read in full.