Alcohol-funded websites are omitting and misrepresenting scientific evidence on the effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy, a strategy that may be putting the health of pregnant women and their babies at risk, according to a study published this month in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
The study found, for example, that alcohol-funded websites often fail to discuss fetal alcohol syndrome, a type of birth defect that a baby can develop if a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy.
The sites also tend to deflect the harms of drinking during pregnancy by using ambiguous or even deceptive language — by framing “light drinking” as equivalent to abstention, for example.
By contrast, the websites of public health organizations are direct and unambiguous on this topic. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states on its website: “Any amount of alcohol during pregnancy is harmful. … There is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant.”
Nongovernmental health organizations such as the March of Dimes have similarly clear messages: “Don’t drink alcohol if you’re pregnant, trying to get pregnant or think you may be pregnant. … Alcohol can cause problems for your baby at any time in pregnancy, even before you know you’re pregnant.”
“Across alcohol industry-funded organizations there appears to be a consistent strategy to the delivery of information on alcohol consumption and pregnancy,” said Mark Petticrew, the study’s lead author and director of the Public Health Research Consortium at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in an interview with the Guardian. “One possible reason is that women are a crucial part of the alcohol market. Pregnancy, therefore, may represent a significant commercial threat to the alcohol industry.”
“This study provides further evidence that these organizations pose a potential risk to public health, specifically to the health of pregnant women and the baby, and should have no role in disseminating health information,” he added.
For the study, Petticrew and his colleagues selected 23 websites and apps funded by the alcohol industry in six countries: Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States. They then compared the information about alcohol and pregnancy presented on those sites with the information offered on 19 public-health websites in those same countries.
The alcohol industry-funded websites and apps included ones for companies such as Heineken, Diageo, Jacobs Creek and Barcardi, while the other alcohol industry-funded sites included ones for such organizations as the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility in the United States and Drinkaware in Great Britain.
The analysis revealed that websites funded by the alcohol industry were significantly less likely to include information on what scientists have uncovered about alcohol’s harmful effects on fertility, pregnancy and breastfeeding. For example, fewer than half of the alcohol industry-funded sites included any information on fetal alcohol syndrome compared to about 90 percent of the public-health websites.
When the industry sites did include that information, they tended to bury it. In one case, readers would have to scroll through nine pages of other information before learning about the connection between alcohol and fetal alcohol syndrome.
The industry-funded sites also tended to frame the health harms of drinking alcohol during pregnancy in ways that deflected the responsibility away from alcohol — by implying that scientific knowledge about alcohol and pregnancy is a matter of debate or opinion, for example, or by using wording that suggests (wrongly) that some level of alcohol use is safe during pregnancy — but has yet to be proven so.
Industry-funded sites also muddy the message from public-health officials that pregnant women should abstain from drinking alcohol by equating light drinking (which they don’t define) with abstention.
One site, for example, acknowledges that drinking during pregnancy is “risky,” but also says “what is ‘too much’ may vary from individual to individual.” Another site states that alcohol’s harms during pregnancy are associated only with “certain drinking patterns.”
“This misrepresents the association between the amount drunk and the risk of harm,” write Petticrew and his colleagues. “Emphasis on drinking patterns, rather than on actual level of consumption, is a longstanding alcohol industry strategy.”
‘A potential risk to public health’
The researchers stress that the strategies outlined in the study are undermining the evidence-based advice of public-health agencies. The alcohol industry is engaging in these tactics, they add, to “nudge” women to continue drinking during pregnancy, thus protecting the market for their products.
“This study provides further evidence that alcohol industry corporate social responsibility organizations pose a potential risk to public health, specifically to the health of pregnant women and unborn children, and should have no role in disseminating health information,” Petticrew and his colleagues conclude.
“The public show now be made aware of the risks in using these sources,” they add.
FMI: You’ll find the study on the website for the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.