Irish Times, January 14 2020
Sir, – Further to the article “Simon Harris in lecturing, preening, interfering mood when it comes to alcohol” (Mark Paul, Business Opinion, January 10th), it was concerning to see an evidence-based recommendation by Minister for Health Simon Harris be derided while ignoring common sense and the evidence base.
That alcohol-industry funded charities should not be considered a reliable source when it comes to information about alcohol does not just satisfy “that superficial sense that something sounds as if it must be true”, it is patently obvious.
The industry makes the majority of its sales from those who drink to harmful excess, and that is why it opposes evidence-based measures, such as those in the Public Health Alcohol Bill championed by Minister for Health Simon Harris.
To suggest that it funds information charities with the goal of reducing those sales is quite simply illogical. Why fund them in that case? As Mark Paul states: “To cast responsibility for problem drinking back on to consumer behaviour”, as well as appear to be a good corporate citizen, perhaps presumably in the hope that people forget about their opposition to evidence-based policies that might actually reduce harm. The author suggests that “for an assertion to cross the line from merely truthy to proper truth, a modicum of evidence surely must be required”.
We agree and can supply this evidence. We have published a number of analyses of the information disseminated by industry-funded organisations, including Drinkaware. The peer-reviewed research we and others have performed has shown repeatedly that alcohol-industry-funded charities mislead the public on the links between alcohol and cancer, particularly breast cancer.
This may explain Drinkaware’s misleading “Your Body” poster, which manages to avoid highlighting the risk of breast cancer in women, by showing only a figure of a man. Breast cancer is mentioned, but only down by the man’s ankle.
Such organisations are also statistically less likely to provide information on foetal alcohol syndrome and less likely to advise that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy.
Even their official Twitter accounts are significantly less likely than independent charities to tweet about evidence-based ways to reduce alcohol harm or the most common forms of harm, including cancers, heart disease and drinking during pregnancy.
They also frequently use marketing-type images of people drinking, such that it is difficult to determine whether their interest lies in warning about health harms, or in promoting alcohol. Such images can be seen on the Drinkaware website.
That Mark Paul reviewed the Drinkaware website and thought it was fine is very understandable. Accurate information is placed on these websites alongside misleading information, or the most important health information (the risk of breast cancer, for example) is featured less prominently. When it comes to health harms, it is often harder to notice what is missing, compared to government or non-industry funded organisations.
What he would not have seen on the Drinkaware website is also crucial.
Beyond missing or marginalised health information, would he have seen any evidence of the industry’s role in opposing the Public Health Alcohol Bill? Would he have seen any information on what the evidence is for the policies in the Public Health Alcohol Bill, and how many lives they might save? Or what proportion of the industry’s profits come from those who consume over 50 units a week?
This is the kind of information that sits alongside health information when you visit an independent charity website. This is surely relevant to the public, but absent from Drinkaware materials.
If you go to the Drinkaware twitter feed, you will see they have retweeted a link to the article by Mark Paul criticising a Government Minister for following common sense and the evidence.
Surely that is all we need to know. – Yours, etc,
Dr NASON MAANI, School of Public Health Boston University, and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine;
Prof MARK PETTICREW, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University