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Cate Swannell
Med J Aust 2017; 207 (7): 276. || doi: 10.5694/mja17.n0210
Published online: 2 October 2017

The alcohol industry is misrepresenting evidence about the alcohol-related risk of cancer with activities that have parallels with those of the tobacco industry, according to research from the UK published in Drug and Alcohol Review. Alcohol consumption is a well established risk factor for a range of cancers, including oral cavity, liver, breast and colorectal cancers and, according to the researchers, it accounts for about 4% of new cancer cases annually in the UK. Researchers analysed the information relating to cancer on the websites and in the documents of nearly 30 alcohol industry organisations from English-speaking countries between September 2016 and December 2016. They aimed to determine the extent to which the alcohol industry fully and accurately communicated the scientific evidence on alcohol and cancer to consumers. Most of the organisational websites (24 of 26) included some sort of distortion or misrepresentation of the evidence about alcohol-related cancer risk, with breast and colorectal cancers being the most common areas of misrepresentation. Through qualitative analysis of this information, the investigators identified three main industry strategies: denying or disputing any link with cancer, or selective omission of the relationship; distortion, by mentioning some risk of cancer, but misrepresenting or obfuscating the nature or size of that risk; and distraction, by directing discussion away from the independent effects of alcohol on common cancers. The most common approach involved presenting the relationship between alcohol and cancer as highly complex, with the implication or statement that there was no evidence of a consistent or independent link. Other strategies included denying that any relationship exists or claiming inaccurately that there was no risk for light or “moderate” drinking, as well as discussing a wide range of real and potential risk factors, presenting alcohol as just one risk among many. Professor Mark Petticrew, professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and lead author of the study said: “Some public health bodies liaise with the industry organisations that we analysed. Despite their undoubtedly good intentions, it is unethical for them to lend their expertise and legitimacy to industry campaigns that mislead the public about alcohol-related harms. Our findings are also a clear reminder of the risks of giving the [alcohol industry] the responsibility of informing the public about alcohol and health”.

  • Cate Swannell


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