Alcohol industry accused of tobacco-style tactics

Drinkwise website's health information relating to cancer.??
Drinkwise website's health information relating to cancer.??

The alcohol industry is spreading misinformation about the established link between alcohol and cancer, in tactics similar to those used by tobacco manufacturers, a study has found.

Alcohol is estimated to cause more than 1500 cancer deaths in Australia every year, with breast and bowel cancers of particular concern.

But an international study published in the Drug and Alcohol Review said alcohol industry groups around the world are trying to protect their profits by setting up "responsible drinking" organisations that in fact underplay or omit health risks.

"The global alcohol industry is actively disseminating misinformation about cancer risk, particularly breast cancer," said the study, which examined the websites and documents of 27 alcohol industry organisations last year.

Australian not-for-profit DrinkWise came under fire from the study's authors, who accused it of distorting the risk posed by alcohol by emphasising the risks of heavy drinking over other types of drinking.

DrinkWise is funded by alcohol manufacturers and retailers and runs campaigns focused on the way people consume alcohol, rather than encouraging them to stop drinking.

It has received millions of dollars in federal government funding.

DrinkWise was criticised for saying that "cancer risk associated with the consumption of alcohol is related to patterns of drinking, particularly heavy drinking over extended periods of time".

Researchers argued that statements such as these were misleading because there was an increased risk of developing some cancers at even low levels of drinking, even though the increased risk was small.

The study also accused alcohol industry groups of selective omission of information about cancer and confusing the public by claiming drinking alcohol can protect against some cancers.

About 1330 bowel cancers and 830 breast cancers are attributed to alcohol each year in Australia, while it has been estimated that about 3 per cent of cancers can be blamed on alcohol consumption each year.

The Cancer Council Victoria's head of prevention, Craig Sinclair, said the alcohol industry should not be trusted with disseminating information about alcohol and cancer.

"It is putting the wolf in charge of the hen house," Mr Sinclair said.

"There's a direct association between alcohol and cancer. The more you drink the greater your risk."

The director of the Centre for Health and Social Research, Professor Sandra Jones, said DrinkWise's focus on Australia's drinking culture was an attempt to distract attention from the link between alcohol, cancer and other health risks.

"What they are trying to do is shift the blame to the user," Professor Jones said.

DrinkWise did not say whether it would make changes to its resources as a result of the study, but provided a written statement defending its work and website.

"Based on a range of studies, the DrinkWise website identifies that there is an association between alcohol consumption and, in particular, that regular heavy drinking has been associated with a number of illnesses, including liver disease, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of certain types of cancer," the statement said.

"However, various health authorities and studies state that moderate consumption of alcohol may provide a proactive effective against cardiovascular disease and diabetes for some adults.

"While we do not recommend that anyone drink alcohol for its potential health benefits, for many adults of legal drinking age moderate alcohol consumption can be part of a well-balanced lifestyle."

The study, led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, called for an urgent investigation into tactics used by the alcohol industry and for policymakers to reconsider their relationship with alcohol industry bodies.

The federal government has not provided any funding to DrinkWise in the past two years.

This story Alcohol industry accused of tobacco-style tactics first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.