The Truth about Alcohol and Cancer

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Sep 16, 2017

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It’s a sad but true fact: The more alcohol you drink, the more at-risk you are for cancer of basically any kind. However, a new study has found that the alcohol industry may be lying to us about that link.

The link between cancer and alcohol

An abundant amount of scientific evidence supports the fact that alcohol can cause cancer in as many as seven sites in the body. Almost 6% of cancer-related deaths worldwide are from cancers linked to alcohol.

But wait – what about that glass of red wine daily that’s supposed to prevent cancer? While there are minor suggestions that alcohol can protect against some types of cancers, this evidence was deemed unreliable upon review by the UK’s Committee on Carcinogenicity in 2016.

“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,” said Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and lead author of the study.

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And yet, you’d be excused for thinking your penchant for red wine is a healthy habit. Led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, with the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, the study analysed English-language information on cancer and alcohol consumption distributed by alcohol industry-affiliated bodies (mostly PR organisations or social events and associations). Their main aim was to determine how accurately the alcohol industry communicates the link between cancer and alcohol.

They found most industry websites examined misrepresented the evidence of alcohol-related cancer risk, either by outright disputing claims that alcohol can cause cancer, or by claiming inaccurately that there is no risk for ‘light’ or ‘moderate’ drinking, or by mentioning some connection between alcohol and cancer but muddling the information or downplaying the risk. Some sites attempted to shift focus from the downsides of alcohol to other cancer-causing factors. Still others simply omitted any mention of cancer and highlighted other health risks instead. (A notable absence or skewing of fact across most websites: Information on breast cancer, for which alcohol consumption is a risk factor.)

  The authors said they don’t wish to scare people away from drinking alcohol, they just want people to be fully informed on the health risks that come with it.

“Existing evidence of strategies employed by the alcohol industry suggests that this may not be a matter of simple error,” said Professor Petticrew. “This has obvious parallels with the global tobacco industry’s decades-long campaign to mislead the public about the risk of cancer, which also used front organisations and corporate social activities.”

And while it’s doubtful that people are going to these websites for health guidance (though may not question it when they stumble across it), this kind of clouding of fact has a tendency to find its way into other, more official-seeming sources of information — alcohol industry-funded studies and news articles that tout alcohol’s (doubtful) cancer-fighting properties.

But we may see history repeating itself. The findings of this study clearly point at serious irresponsibility on the part of the alcohol industry, and if major international alcohol companies are misleading shareholders about the risks of their products, it could open them up to litigation in some countries.

“It has often been assumed that, by and large, the (alcohol industry), unlike the tobacco industry, has tended not to deny the harms of alcohol,” said Professor Petticrew. “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.”

The authors of the study did not examine other methods through which the industry provides health-related information, but said it is unlikely their results would be any different. They also called for an urgent look into whether the industry has distorted evidence of alcohol’s link to other health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease.

The authors said they don’t wish to scare people away from drinking alcohol – so don’t necessarily stop your nightly glass of red wine – they just want people to be fully informed about the health risks that come with it, advising drinkers light and heavy to look to government and health websites for accurate and accessible information.

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Written By Sapan Taneja

Sapan Taneja is a freelance writer, editor and a videographer. He is the sub-editor of Transitions in Global Education and has previously headed the Warwick India Forum. He holds a BSc in Economics, Politics and International Education from the University of Warwick.

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