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Drinks industry accused of downplaying ‘alcohol-cancer risk’

"Drinks industry downplaying alcohol-cancer link," The Guardian reports as new analysis has been published looking at the accuracy of health information circulated by the alcohol industry on the link between alcohol and cancer.

Many people still don't appreciate that alcohol can increase the risk of a range of cancers, such as breast, liver and mouth cancer.

As part of their corporate and social responsibility goals, the UK alcohol industry shares health information to inform and encourage their consumers to drink responsibly.

But the industry has been accused of misrepresenting the evidence to favour their own interests.

Researchers wanted to see if the health information produced by the alcohol industry is scientifically accurate.

They found the industry and affiliated organisations use three main approaches when disseminating health information:

  • denial of the link between alcohol and cancer
  • misinterpretation of the risk
  • distraction by focusing on other risk factors for cancer, aside from alcohol consumption

Critics of the drinks industry have likened this approach to that of the tobacco industry in the 1960s and 70s, when the link between smoking and lung cancer was first proved.

The UK Chief Medical Officers' recommendation is men and women drink no more than 14 units a week, spread evenly over three days or more.


Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from several institutions, including the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Karolinska Intitutet in Sweden, and the University of Tromsø in Norway.

No sources of external funding were reported.

It was published in the peer-reviewed journal Drug and Alcohol Review. It's available to read online for free on an open access basis.

Generally, the UK media coverage was balanced and accurate.


What kind of research was this?

This qualitative analysis aimed to investigate the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the health information disseminated by the alcohol industry on the links between alcohol and cancer.

It's well established that drinking alcohol is associated with an increased risk of at least seven types of cancer, including mouth, throat, oesophageal, liver, breast and colon cancers.

Alcohol is reportedly responsible for approximately 4% of new cancer cases every year.

Despite the volume of evidence, the alcohol industry has disputed the relationship between drinking alcohol and cancer.

This research highlights important themes and strategies used by the alcohol industry.

But it's unclear whether the sources and websites included in the research were chosen in a systematic manner.

A systematic review, where the search methodology is determined in advance, would be a better way to look into this thoroughly.


What did the research involve?

The researchers analysed websites and documents from 27 organisations linked to the alcohol industry.

They checked information published on cancer and alcohol between September and December 2016.

The websites were identified using the Global Alcohol Producers website and progress reports.

The researchers looked for related themes, and checked the reliability and validity of the content and whether representative scientific examples were used, before identifying the strategies the industry used to circulate the information.


What were the basic results?

The researchers found between 24 and 26 of organisational websites misrepresented or omitted scientific evidence confirming the link between alcohol consumption and cancer, particularly when discussing breast and colorectal cancers.

Three main strategies were identified.


This is where the risk of cancer was mentioned, but the nature or size of that risk was obscured or misrepresented.

This was the most common strategy used by the alcohol industry.

The relationship between alcohol and cancer was presented in a highly complex way before implying that an independent link wasn't possible.

Three further approaches were found when this strategy was used:

  • Claiming or implying that the risk only applies to particular patterns of drinking, such as heavy drinking or consumption for long periods of time.
  • Claiming or implying that, as knowledge of the mechanism is incomplete, the evidence of a causal relationship isn't trustworthy, or there's a lack of consensus among experts.
  • Claiming protective effects of alcohol on some cancers, thus confusing the picture of overall risk.

Denial or omission

This involves denying or disputing any link with cancer, or deliberately failing to mention the relationship.

Five out of the 27 organisations denied there was any association between drinking alcohol and developing cancer.

Examples include inaccurate claims that light to moderate drinking doesn't lead to an increased risk of developing cancer.

And some sources listed the short- and long-term effects alcohol has on the body, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, alcohol dependence and liver cirrhosis, but failed to mention cancer.


This involved focusing discussion away from the independent effects alcohol has on common cancers.

Eight organisations used this strategy – by discussing a wide range of other risk factors associated with cancers, the industry is able to minimise the role alcohol plays in their development.

For example, for the link between alcohol and breast cancer, organisations pointed out that individuals were at high risk if breast cancer ran in the family, or said it's also age-related.


How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded: "Our analysis suggests that the major global alcohol producers may attempt to mitigate this risk by disseminating misleading information about cancer through their 'responsible drinking' bodies.

"The existing evidence of strategies employed by the alcohol industry suggests that this may not be a matter of simple error."



This qualitative analysis aimed to determine the accuracy of health information circulated by the alcohol industry on the links between alcohol and cancer.

It found the industry and affiliated organisations use three main approaches:

  • denial of the link between alcohol and cancer
  • misinterpretation of the risk
  • distraction by focusing on other risk factors

This analysis highlights how these strategies could be detrimental to public health.

Of course, it's possible, given this data was collected in 2016, that some of the websites and documents analysed by the researchers have since been updated.

Regardless, the researchers suggest their analysis has significant implications for both clinicians and policymakers.

They call for a full-scale investigation into how the alcohol industry represents the link between alcohol and cancer.

Current UK recommendations on alcohol advise that men and women drink no more than 14 units a week, with one unit equal to 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol.

Links To The Headlines

Drinks industry downplaying alcohol-cancer link – report. The Guardian, September 7 2017

Alcohol industry 'playing down' risk of cancer by using tobacco industry tactics. Sky News, September 8 2017

Links To Science

Petticrew M, Hessaei NM, Knai C, et al. How alcohol industry organisations mislead the public about alcohol and cancer. Drug and Alcohol Review. Published online September 7 2017

Read the story on NHS Choices