“Vodka martini. Shaken, not stirred.”

The infamous James Bond tag line has, ironically, stirred tremendous imagination among movie-goers and the general population about the cool image of drinking a sophisticated cocktail – while maintaining the classic intelligent, deadly and seductive “gentleman” demeanour.

How many of the Bond fans out there actually realise that drinking alcohol has been intimately associated with many common cancers? Perhaps not as many as it should be; and it may be due to misrepresentations from none other than the alcohol industry itself.

“Denial, distortion and distraction.”

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine published a qualitative analysis, in Drug and Alcohol Review journal, which examines the comprehensiveness and accuracy of information about alcohol and cancer that was disseminated by the alcohol industry.

Together with researchers from the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, the group analysed information published on websites or in-print by close to 30 alcohol industry organisations. The research group argued that, as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR), the alcohol industry has the obligation to adequately inform the public about the risk associated with alcohol consumption – particularly, the increased risk of cancers.

Nevertheless, the reality almost always does not reflect our hypothetical assumptions of what corporates will do. According to the study, almost all of the organisational websites reviewed by the researchers “distorted” or “misrepresented” scientific evidence that linked alcohol consumption with the risk of cancer. Breast and colorectal cancers were among the most prevalent cancers being misrepresented.

Lead author, Professor Mark Petticrew said that "the weight of scientific evidence is clear – drinking alcohol increases the risk of some of the most common forms of cancer, including several common cancers. Public awareness of this risk is low, and 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 about cancer through their ‘responsible drinking' bodies."

Three main strategies of misinforming the public were identified by the researchers. The alcohol industry commonly denied the evidence that linked drinking behaviour to increased risk of cancers by presenting the scientific relationship between the two as highly complex and not reliable. Alternatively, evidence that points to a similar conclusion was conveniently "omitted" from their publication.

Distortion was another commonly employed tactic as well, owing to the lack of the ability among the general population to interpret scientific calculations and statistics. The researchers found that some alcohol organisations did mention the risk of cancer, but substantially obfuscate the size of such risk either by questioning the trustworthiness of the evidence or to even claim protective effect of alcohol on certain cancers.

Lastly, the industry attempted to distract the population away from the independent causal effect of alcohol on cancers by pointing towards a large range of other cancer risk factors.

"It has often been assumed that, by and large, the AI [Alcohol Industry], unlike the tobacco industry, has tended not to deny the harms of alcohol. However, through its provision of misleading information it can maintain what has been called "the illusion of righteousness" in the eyes of policymakers, while negating any significant impact on alcohol consumption and profits" said Professor Petticrew.

The industry response

The report received wide criticism from the alcohol industry, which collectively denied or questioned the validity of the study. The Portman Group, the responsibility body for drinks producer in the UK, denied the researchers' accusation of intentionally misrepresenting the risks of alcohol consumption.

John Timothy, chief executive of the Portman Group, said: "It is vital that academic research and commentary about lifestyle risks is presented fairly, accurately and in context so that people can make rational and informed choices in their everyday lives." MIMS

Read more:
Is alcohol all bad? Important historical development of alcohol as medicine
Moderate alcohol consumption linked to reduced risk of diabetes
Pharmacists: How much do you know about alcohol?

Sources:
https://www.lshtm.ac.uk/newsevents/news/2017/alcohol-industry-misleading-public-about-alcohol-related-cancer-risk
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/dar.12596/abstract
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/sep/07/alcohol-cancer-link-report-portman-group-drinkaware