Doug Sellman: An irresponsible alcohol industry is doing its best to confuse
OPINION: University of Otago's Professor Jennie Connor has had two prestigious publications in the past month highlighting the fact that alcohol causes cancer in moderate drinkers in New Zealand.
These two publications add to a growing international literature on the topic.
Alcohol is a cause of cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, liver, large bowel and breast, and quite possibly the pancreas, prostate and melanoma as well, although the evidence for these others is not as strong at this point. These were the conclusions of a large international meta-analysis, involving 572 separate studies, published in the British Journal of Cancer.
The really important point that Connor makes is that many of the cases of these alcohol-related cancers occur in moderate drinkers, ie they are not confined to people with severe alcoholism.
It is clearly important for this information to be widely publicised to all who consume alcohol in New Zealand. However, it won't be the alcohol industry that engages in this work. A responsible industry of any product that is causing 250 cancer deaths each year would quickly warn its customers about the risk.
However, the alcohol industry is actively engaged in the opposite and endeavouring to obfuscate the findings of medical science. It is attempting to confuse the public about the strong linkage between alcohol and cancer, to bring as much doubt to the public discussion as possible, and to denigrate those who present this information to the public.
Following a highly successful national conference on Alcohol & Cancer last year, co-hosted by the Cancer Society of New Zealand and Alcohol Action NZ, an opinion editorial appeared in written by an American biomedical scientist, Dr Samir Zakhari, who works for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Zakhari claimed that "attributing cancer to social moderate drinking is simply incorrect and is not supported by the body of scientific literature" and referred to the conference speakers as "well-intentioned" but mistaken.
After the latest publications by Connor, the chief executive of Spirits New Zealand, Robert Brewer, has responded, suggesting her latest paper was just "an opinion piece", likening her work to that of an amateur who on finding a study that shows people who wear blue jeans drive fast then concludes that blue jeans must cause road fatalities. Seriously.
Brewer then reveals the American connection of his industry and in particular the close link between Spirits New Zealand and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, by including comments from Zakhari in his media release.
Zakhari is a little more circumspect about his words compared with last year's flat denial of an association between moderate drinking and cancer, resorting now to terminology aimed at hiding alcohol as a direct causative agent in cancer such as "complex interactions between lifestyle, sociocultural and genetic issues" and referring to "light to moderate drinking" rather than "moderate drinking".
However, he is just as forthright, accusing Connor of "lacking scientific credibility" and basing her conclusions on "cherry-picking epidemiological articles".
Over the next two weeks, Connor will be the keynote speaker at a series of public meetings in New Zealand highlighting the strong association of alcohol with cancer. At these meetings the tactics used by the alcohol industry's "Merchants of Doubt", well demonstrated by Brewer and Zakhari, will also be outlined.
These tactics appear to be very similar to those employed by the tobacco industry over the past 40 years.
A list of key alcohol and cancer facts have been assembled for these meetings as follows:
- There were 243 cancer deaths attributable to alcohol in 2007.
- 126 of these cancer deaths were in men, 117 were in women.
- This represents 4.2% of all cancer deaths, i.e. 1 in 25.
- 60% of all alcohol-related cancer deaths in women were due to breast cancer.
- This represents 14% of all breast cancer deaths, i.e. 1 in 7.
- There is no level of drinking that does not increase your risk of cancer to some extent, but heavier drinkers are more affected than light drinkers.
- Reducing your drinking will reduce your risk of cancer regardless of how much you currently drink.
- Alcohol does not increase the risk of all types of cancer.
- About half of all alcohol-related cancer deaths occur in men and women who drink 4 standard drinks a day or less – about half a bottle of wine.
- More than a third of breast cancer cases are occurring in women drinking less than two standard drinks a day – about quarter of a bottle of wine.
- The evidence that alcohol causes cancer is very strong; the evidence that alcohol has any benefits for your heart is much weaker.
Finally, it is important to note that although 30 per cent of all alcohol-related deaths are due to cancer, alcohol is the cause of enormous other harm to people in New Zealand – street fighting, domestic violence, sexual violation, depression and suicide, road injury – as well as death and disability from many other chronic medical conditions, especially involving the heart, liver, stomach and brain.
Professor Doug Sellman is director of the National Addiction Centre, University of Otago, Christchurch, and medical spokesperson for Alcohol Action NZ.
- The Dominion Post