Drinkwise Australia has been criticised for publishing misleading public health information on alcohol-related cancer risk.
The organisation, which is funded through voluntary industry contributions across the alcohol sector, was included in a Drug and Alcohol Reviewstudy surveying the comprehensiveness and accuracy of public health information published by 27 similar organisations worldwide.
Content on the Drinkwise site was highlighted for selectively omitting information about cancer risk, claiming risk only applied to particular drinking patterns, confusing the relationship between alcohol and cancer by mentioning other risk factors, and failing to discuss the link between alcohol and colorectal cancer in any materials.
The Drug and Alcohol Review report took issue with Drinkwise implying the risk of common cancers only existed for "heavy", excessive or binge drinking when scientific evidence showed the increased risk of some breast, oesophageal, laryngeal, mouth and throat cancers and cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract, starts at low levels of consumption.
Drinkwise website's health information relating to cancer risk. Photo: drinkwise.org.au
The interactive tool highlighting the health hazards of drinking for men and women also came under the researchers' scrutiny.
While Drinkwise mentions breast cancer in other areas of the website, it fails to include this in the interactive and alcohol-related risk of colorectal cancer is not discussed anywhere.
Drinkwise website's interactive about the impact of alcohol on the body. Photo: drinkwise.org.au
Drinkwise, a non-profit with the stated aim of bringing about healthier and safer drinking culture in Australia, defended the rigour with which it verified information published online.
It stated the organisation sought clinical advice from experts to ensure information reflected authoritative studies and sources such as the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol.
"The DrinkWise website identifies that there is an association between alcohol consumption and, in particular, that regular heavy drinking has been associated with a number of illnesses, including liver disease, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of certain types of cancer," the statement read.
"In addition, our information highlights that some studies have reported an association between moderate alcohol consumption and an increased risk of breast cancer.
"However, various health authorities and studies state that moderate consumption of alcohol may provide a proactive effective against cardiovascular disease and diabetes for some adults."
Drinkwise did not respond to questions from The Canberra Times on whether any changes would be made to online materials following the report.
The report stressed the global alcohol industry appeared "to be engaged in the extensive misrepresentation of evidence about the alcohol-related risk of cancer" and suggested the activity had "parallels with those of the tobacco industry."
A swathe of public health experts have spoken out about the study including Curtin University's Julia Stafford who said consumers had a right to reliable information about the risk associated with alcohol.
"Health information about alcohol should come from governments and health authorities, not alcohol industry groups," she said.
"For the alcohol industry, it is an inconvenient truth that alcohol use is a cause of cancer. There is now convincing evidence that alcohol causes a range of cancers, and the risk of cancer increases as alcohol use increases. Cancer is a significant fear for many people so the alcohol-cancer link presents a threat to alcohol industry profits."
Associate professor in marketing at Macquarie University and president of the Australian Association of Social Marketing, Ross Gordon, said the study demonstrated "contesting the research evidence base is often part of the stakeholder marketing strategy of the alcohol industry".
He cautioned the study had limitations as it only examined industry websites, so further research was needed to examine broader chanels and social media.
The report calls on policymakers, academics, public health bodies globally to reconsider the appropriateness of their relationships to alcohol industry bodies which are often involved the development of alcohol policy and spreading health information to the public, particularly to school children.