The Muddled Link Between Booze and Cancer
Jennifer Chaussee has published an excellent article in WIRED about the alcohol industry’s tactics to undercut independent science and sow doubt about scientific evidence concerning the health dangers of alcohol.
Chaussee explores some of the consequences of Big Alcohol perpetuating myths about alcohol’s health benefits and downplaying of health risks:
Jennie Connor, a preventative and social medicine researcher from New Zealand’s University of Otago, published a review of studies looking at the correlation between [alcohol use] and cancer, concluding that “there is strong evidence that alcohol causes cancer at seven sites in the body and probably others.” Her analysis credits alcohol with nearly 6 percent of all cancer deaths worldwide.
Connor’s use of the word “cause” separates her from most alcohol researchers and cancer advocacy groups in the US, where the conversation revolves around a more delicate term: “risk.” American consumers and researchers are both uncomfortable—or at least unfamiliar—with the idea of alcohol as health threat. When the American Institute for Cancer Research put out a survey to measure public perception of various cancer threats, less than half of respondents believed that alcohol was a risk factor for cancer. Which is odd, because 56 percent thought GMOs were, even though there’s no scientific proof that they are.”
Sowing doubt, undermining independent science
The alcohol industry works to undermine scientific consensus and to sow doubt about alcohol’s health harm. They do this in different ways:
- Conducting, funding and publishing their own research papers
It wasn’t the first time the journal had called out the often-cozy relationship between alcohol academics and industry. Trade organizations like the Distilled Spirits Council, which represents alcohol companies and is the largest alcohol lobbying arm, often work hand in hand with regulators and researchers. Some researchers go on to work for their industry connections, like Samir Zakhari, a former director at the US National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (the National Institutes of Health’s alcohol research division). After he retired from the NIH, he went to work for the Distilled Spirits Council.”
- Using of “their” research results in disseminating information to policy makers and broader society
A recent case in this context is SABMiller financing the UK-Think Tank DEMOS for conducting a study on “Youth drinking”.
SABMiller did not only provide the funding for the report, but also participated in the “policy roundtable” together with other alcohol industry representatives.
The report indicates a number of problems concerning alcohol harm, pervasive alcohol norm in young people’s lives but fails to make any mention in the recommendations of the three best buys – that even the OECD, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum acknowledge for their evidence-based, cost-effective impact on preventing and reducing alcohol harm.
- Pressuring and even threatening public-health oriented scientists and studies
The alcohol industry is threatening researchers with lawsuits – much like Big Tobacco’s tactics.
For example, Drinkwise was established in 2005 by the alcohol industry and funded later by the federal government of Australia in 2006. When receiving public funding, critics argued that it should advocate evidence-based public health policies. Instead, Drinkwise lobbied the government for information programmes that evidence shows do not work in changing behavior and reducing alcohol harm; at the same time Drinkwise was opposing evidence-based policies such as the three best buys in alcohol policy that ran counter to alcohol industry interests.
In 2009, 57 health experts and scientists wrote to the Medical Journal of Australia opposing further public funding and declaring that they would not accept funding from Drinkwise. Drinkwise responded by writing individually to selected signatories, suggesting that the letter was defamatory and implying possible litigation, in the manner of the tobacco industry.
Chausses writes in her WIRED article:
Connor’s analysis of existing alcohol research was a turning point for the conversation on booze and cancer. But once you’ve decided that alcohol is a substantial public health risk, you still need to convince [alcohol users] of that fact. And it’s a lot easier to tell people [alcohol use] is good for them than to explain how and why it isn’t.”
That’s basically what the alcohol industry is trying to accomplish through muddling science and distorting messages about evidence.