October 19, 2022

Public health vs ‘Big Alcohol’ profits

Beers lifted in cheers

Part one in a two-part series about tactics used by the alcohol industry to undermine public health information on drinking.

Alcohol is the most widely used drug in Australia and it can seriously impact our health.1

If we know about the health risks associated with drinking, we can make informed decisions.

But the alcohol industry, or ‘Big Alcohol’, would prefer you didn’t know about the risks.

For years the industry has been downplaying alcohol-related health concerns.2

This is because less people drinking = less profits.

Muddying the evidence

Downplaying the link between alcohol and cancer

In 1988 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared alcohol a Group 1 carcinogen – a direct cause of cancer.3

Since then, research has confirmed the direct link between alcohol and 7 types of cancer

This includes cancer of the:

We also know there’s a cancer risk even with low levels of drinking.

The more you drink, the higher the risk.5-10

But, only half of Australians know that drinking can cause cancer.1, 11

One of the main reasons for this is the powerful influence Big Alcohol has on what we see online and in the media.12

Big Alcohol frequently misleads the public about the links between alcohol and cancer.3

Some of their tactics include:

  • denying or disputing the evidence, or failing to acknowledge it exists
  • misrepresenting the alcohol-related cancer risk. This includes suggesting only heavy drinking comes with risks, that there’s a lack of scientific agreement, or highlighting alcohol as a protective factor by quoting disproven research that alcohol is good for heart health
  • distracting people from the impact of alcohol by pointing out other cancer risk factors.3, 12-14

Big Alcohol has also been guilty of ‘pink-washing’. This involves the iconic pink ribbon, or colour pink, being added to products, promotions, or donations to show support for breast cancer.15

This is an attempt by Big Alcohol to mask the fact that alcohol causes breast cancer.

The amount of pink-washing in Australia is declining. But, partnerships between alcohol companies and breast cancer charities are still used in advertising.16

Funding public health research

Big Alcohol exploits public health research into the impacts of drinking by manipulating studies in their favour. 

They do this to maintain their profits and influence the public and policy makers.

As well as doing their own research, Big Alcohol also provides funding for studies into alcohol health impacts.

And the amount of funding is on the rise – there’s been a 56% increase since 2009.17, 18

This funding creates significant conflict of interest because Big Alcohol is motivated by profits, rather than public health. 

The studies can be manipulated so the findings are inaccurate and only show positive health effects.

Big Alcohol-funded research often claims that moderate drinking can help protect blood vessels and the heart and has a positive health impact.

The alcohol industry has even claimed that more women’s lives are saved by moderate drinking due to these positive health impacts than are lost from alcohol-related disease.
But, all these claims are based on flawed and outdated research. 

The research compared low-to-moderate drinkers with people who didn’t drink at all (abstainers).

They found people who drank at moderate levels had better health afterwards and proposed that low-level drinking can protect against certain heart conditions and Type 2 diabetes. 

But, the abstainer group were actually previous drinkers with underlying health conditions, corrupting the findings.

Some alcohol-funded studies also promote the idea that alcohol dependence is the fault of individuals, and not the alcohol industry.18

This is an attempt to shift responsibility for negative alcohol effects to the public, rather than Big Alcohol.

Big Alcohol involvement in policy

Globally, the alcohol industry has been more influential in alcohol policy development than scientists or public health experts.14

Big Alcohol is often involved in the development of alcohol-related policies. This includes initiatives that seek to improve public health, such as Minimum Unit Pricing.

This gives them an opportunity to misrepresent the facts. 

A recent review found that 94% of submissions by the alcohol industry had misused research evidence, or denied the effectiveness of evidence-based strategies.19

The tobacco industry historically used similar tactics to Big Alcohol in an attempt to convince the public that smoking was safe.3 They are now banned from being involved in cigarette-related policy development because of their conflict of interest.19, 20

Undermining the official Australian drinking guidelines

In 2020, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) released its updated Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking. 

The guidelines recommend no more than 10 standard drinks in a week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one occasion.

These recommendations are a guide to help people lower their risks from alcohol. The guidelines are not part of the law or enforced.

Unsurprisingly, the alcohol industry said the guidelines were ‘strict’, ‘harsh’ and ‘unfair’ on Australians. They also questioned the scientific evidence and argued that Australians should have no faith in the NHMRC.2

This is despite the NHMRC being one of the 10 largest funders of health research in the world, well known for its high-quality work.21, 22 You can read how the NHMRC developed the research for the guidelines on its website.

Big Alcohol also argued that the ‘protective’ effects of drinking should be included in any new guidelines. They refused to acknowledge that this research was found to be biased and flawed.23-27

And, even if there was reliable evidence, the strong links between drinking and cancer would outweigh any ‘protective’ effects.2, 5-10

Profits over public health

If everybody drank at the levels recommended in the NHMRC guidelines, Big Alcohol would make a lot less money.28-30

Around three quarters of alcohol in Australia is drunk by people who average 4 or more standard drinks a day.30 If they drank at the recommended level instead, the total amount of alcohol consumed nationally would decrease by up to 39%.30

In England, it was found that if consumers reduced their drinking to within guideline levels, alcohol sales revenue could decline by 38% (£13 billion).28

The alcohol industry relies on heavy drinkers to boost their profits.30

There’s an obvious conflict of interest in the alcohol industry providing health advice around drinking.

To read more on this issue, see the articles below:

  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia 2022 [30.08.2022].
  2. Miller P. How big alcohol is trying to fool us into thinking drinking is safer than it really is2019 [28.09.2022].
  3. Petticrew M, Maani Hessari N, Knai C, Weiderpass E. How alcohol industry organisations mislead the public about alcohol and cancer. Drug and Alcohol Review [Internet]. 2018 [19.09.2022]; 37(3):[293-303 pp.].
  4. Cancer Council. Limit Alcohol 2022 [19.09.2022].
  5. Amin G, Siegel M, Naimi T. National Cancer Societies and their public statements on alcohol consumption and cancer risk. Addiction [Internet]. 2018 [17.09.2022]; 113(10):[1802-8 pp.].
  6. Cancer Council Victoria. Graphic ad shows the lasting effects of alcohol 2019 [28.09.2022].
  7. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Canberra: Australian Government; 2020 [15.09.2022].
  8. Sarich P, Canfell K, Egger S, Banks E, Joshy G, Grogan P, et al. Alcohol consumption, drinking patterns and cancer incidence in an Australian cohort of 226,162 participants aged 45 years and over. British Journal of Cancer [Internet]. 2021 [19.09.2022]; 124(2):[513-23 pp.]. Available from:
  9. Roswall N, Weiderpass E. Alcohol as a risk factor for cancer: existing evidence in a global perspective. J Prev Med Public Health [Internet]. 2015 [17.09.2022]; 48(1):[1-9 pp.].
  10. Pandeya N, Wilson LF, Webb PM, Neale RE, Bain CJ, Whiteman DC. Cancers in Australia in 2010 attributable to the consumption of alcohol. Aust N Z J Public Health [Internet]. 2015 [17.09.2022]; 39(5):[408-13 pp.].
  11. Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE). Annual Alcohol Poll 2020 [12.09.2022].
  12. Vallance K, Vincent A, Schoueri-Mychasiw N, Stockwell T, Hammond D, Greenfield TK, et al. News Media and the Influence of the Alcohol Industry: An Analysis of Media Coverage of Alcohol Warning Labels With a Cancer Message in Canada and Ireland. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs [Internet]. 2020 [12.09.2022]; 81(2):[273-83 pp.].
  13. Slevin T. 'Alcohol increases cancer risk, but don’t trust the booze industry to give you the facts straight' 2017 [19.09.2022].
  14. Bartlett A, McCambridge J. Appropriating the Literature: Alcohol Industry Actors' Interventions in Scientific Journals. Journal of studies on alcohol and drugs [Internet]. 2021 [29.09.2022]; 82(5):[595-601 pp.].
  15. Agostino C, Middlemost R. The Impact of Femvertising on Pink Breast Cancer Products in Australia 2022 29.08.2022. In: The cultural politics of femvertising: selling empowerment [Internet]. Palgrave Macmillan.
  16. Dan Murphy's. Jim Barry X McGrath Foundation 2021 [01.09.2022].
  17. Golder S, Garry J, McCambridge J. Declared funding and authorship by alcohol industry actors in the scientific literature: a bibliometric study. European Journal of Public Health [Internet]. 2020 [17.09.2022]; 30(6):[1193-200 pp.].
  18. JUTA Medical Brief.'Worrying' rise in alcohol industry-funded research into alcohol impacts 2020 [17.09.2022].
  19. Stafford J, Kypri K, Pettigrew S. Industry Actor Use of Research Evidence: Critical Analysis of Australian Alcohol Policy Submissions. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs [Internet]. 2020 [28.09.2022]; 81(6):[710-8 pp.].
  20. Australian Government. Guidance for Public Officials on Interacting with the Tobacco Industry 2019 [01.10.2022].
  21. Viergever RF, Hendriks T. The 10 largest public and philanthropic funders of health research in the world: what they fund and how they distribute their funds. Health Research Policy and Systems [Internet]. 2016 [29.09.2022]; 14(12):[12 p.].
  22. National Health and Medical Research Council. Measuring up 2018 2020 [29.09.2022].
  23. Stockwell T, Zhao J, Panwar S, Roemer A, Naimi T, Chikritzhs T. Do “Moderate” Drinkers Have Reduced Mortality Risk? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Alcohol Consumption and All-Cause Mortality. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs [Internet]. 2016 [29.09.2022]; 77(2):[185-98 pp.].
  24. Stockwell T, Zhao J. Alcohol's contribution to cancer is underestimated for exactly the same reason that its contribution to cardioprotection is overestimated. Addiction [Internet]. 2017 2017/02/01 [29.09.2022]; 112(2):[230-2 pp.].
  25. McCambridge J, Hartwell G. Has industry funding biased studies of the protective effects of alcohol on cardiovascular disease? A preliminary investigation of prospective cohort studies. Drug and Alcohol Review [Internet]. 2015 [29.09.2022]; 34(1):[58-66 pp.].
  26. Rabin R. Major Study of Drinking Will Be Shut Down: The New York Times; 2018 [28.09.2022].
  27. Rabin R. It Was Supposed to Be an Unbiased Study of Drinking. They Wanted to Call It ‘Cheers.’: The New York Times; 2018 [29.09.2022]. Available from:
  28. Bhattacharya A, Angus C, Pryce R, Holmes J, Brennan A, Meier PS. How dependent is the alcohol industry on heavy drinking in England? Addiction [Internet]. 2018 [19.09.2022]; 113(12):[2225-32 pp.].
  29. The Economist. Alcohol firms promote moderate drinking, but it would ruin them. 2019 [19.09.2022].
  30. Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education (FARE). Risky business: The alcohol industry’s dependence on Australia’s heaviest drinkers 2016 [17.09.2022].

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