Educ’ Alcool’s Misinformation: More Mixed Messages About Alcohol Harms
In this commentary Petticrew and colleagues respond to Educ’ alcool’s response written by Hubert Sacy to a previous research study by Peake and colleagues.
As per Educ’ Alcool’s conflict of interest statement, Éduc’alcool is funded by a levy on the alcoholic beverages sold through the network of the SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec), the state-owned alcohol Crown Corporation. This represents more than 99.9% of the organization’s funding. Éduc’alcool also receives about three thousand Canadian dollars per year (0.1% of its funding) from small local alcohol producers who do not sell their products through the SAQ and must fund a prevention organization of their choice according to Quebec laws. Hubert Sacy who wrote the respnse to Petticrew and colleagues is the director general of Éduc’alcool.
The original study by Petticrew and colleagues focussed on the cardiovascular disease (CVD) risks posed by alcohol. Their research builds on previous evidence in analyzing how efforts to address public health threats, including alcohol harms, may be undermined by commercial actors. In this commentary the researchers point out that, previous research across many harmful products documents how corporate social responsibility activities form a critical arm of efforts in fomenting doubt about product harms.
Petticrew and colleagues point out the problems with Educ’alcool’s response to their study:
- Educ’alcool undermines the original paper’s methodology despite the methods section explicitly stating that the dataset included webpage content, and that websites were accessed during June 2019.
- Educ’alcool presents a part of a PDF report claiming they have information dedicated to heart health. This is a report not a public facing webpage where people can readily access key facts on alcohol and CVD. As the methods section of the original paper by Petticrew and colleagues state webpage content was the dataset, not reports.
- Educ’alcool’s materials have been analyzed as part of multiple larger studies of alcohol industry misinformation. These studies have shown, that industry-funded organizations including Educ’alcool selectively misinform the public about pregnancy harms, cancer and now CVD. This is contrary to Educ’alcool claiming their information is unbiased.
- The Educ’alcool’s report mentioned in their response is problematic containing framings consistent with previously documented misinformation techniques.
- The report speaks of harms of alcohol only after ‘Helpful Effects’ and ‘Protective Effects’. This is ‘nudging’ readers away from clear evidence of harms while making so called ‘benefits’ more prominent. This is a common alcohol industry misinformation tactic.
- The table presented in the Educ’alcool response consists of a cherry-picked, unreferenced selection of five studies. It does not represent any meaningful or unbiased representation of the evidence.
- The tone of the Educ’alcool response is consistent with research by Bartlett and McCambridge on how alcohol industry and related actors aggressively respond to criticism.
- Making narrow claims about accuracy while ignoring substantial engagement with the issues of framing, context, and impacts on readers.
- Highly defensive, designed to protect the reputations of the organizations.
- The replies, printed in peer-reviewed journals, operate as public relations exercises given legitimacy by being located within the scientific literature.
- Educ’alcool’s materials and response are entirely consistent with the growing evidence on alcohol misinformation and what has been called its ‘strategic ambiguity’.
Petticrew and colleagues conclude that independent bodies (such as government health departments) should not use or signpost to material from SAPRO’s, given that it has the characteristics of other unhealthy commodity industry-funded misinformation, and significantly misrepresents the evidence.