LONDON – The alcohol industry uses denial, distortion and distraction to mislead people about the risks of developing cancer from drinking, often employing similar tactics to those of the tobacco industry, a study said on Thursday.
Industry organizations often present the relationship between alcohol and cancer as highly complex, implying there is no clear evidence of a consistent link, said the study led by scientists at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet.
Other strategies include denying any relationship exists, or saying inaccurately that there is no risk with moderate drinking, the study found. The industry also seeks to mention a wide range of other real and potential cancer risk factors in an effort to present alcohol as just one of many, it added.
The World Health Organization says drinking alcohol is a well-established risk factor for a range of cancers, including tumors of the mouth, liver, breast, and colon and bowel. And the risk of cancer rises with levels of alcohol consumed.
The research team behind Thursday’s study analyzed the information relating to cancer on the websites and documents of nearly 30 alcohol industry organizations around the world between September 2016 and December 2016.
“The weight of scientific evidence is clear: drinking alcohol increases the risk of some of the most common forms of cancer,” said Mark Petticrew, a professor of public Health at the LSHTM who co-led the study.
“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.”
Responding to the study, the Distilled Spirits Council, a U.S. alcohol trade association, said it was “a highly selective” review authored by researchers with “anti-alcohol biases.”
“The Council does not recommend that people drink alcohol for potential health benefits,” it said in a statement. “Drinking in moderation may pose health risks for some people, and some individuals should not drink at all.”
Petticrew’s team identified three main industry strategies: denying any link with cancer, or selective omission of the relationship; distortion by mentioning some risk of cancer, but misrepresenting or obfuscating its size; and distraction by seeking to draw focus away from the risks of alcohol and toward other cancer risks.
One of the most significant findings was that industry materials omitted or misrepresented evidence on breast and bowel cancer, both of which are linked to drinking. When breast cancer was mentioned, 21 of the organizations studied gave no information, or misleading information, about it, the study said.
Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said the study “clearly shows the alcohol industry misleading the public.”
“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.”
Petticrew said the study’s findings, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review on Thursday, were important partly because the alcohol industry is often involved in spreading health information to people around the world.
The International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, which represents large brewers and distillers including Anheuser-Busch InBev and Diageo, said it disagreed with the study’s conclusions. “We … stand by the information that we publish on drinking and health,” it said.
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