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Following the facts


On 25/04/14 by Steve Livens (Policy Manager - Product Assurance & Supply Chain)


I don’t know if you would have noticed it but there was an excellent article published in The Sun at the end of March; ‘Will your loaf leave you brown bread?’ The article itself delivered a fascinating insight into the consumption of wholemeal bread as a cause of dementia, breast cancer, headaches, stroke, diabetes, bloating, kidney cancer and loss in libido!


This article quickly followed from another triumph in the delivery of factual, nutritional information, published about a month earlier, which threw the spotlight on the hidden sugars in alcoholic beverages and in particular the alleged nine-and-a-half teaspoons, nearly 40 grams, of sugar that can be found in a pint of bitter. Imagine!


‘Educating’ consumers about the dietary risks associated with everyday, common foods it seems is the current game of choice, not that this is a new game, of course. However the irresponsible and inaccurate communication of nutritional ‘dangers’ is damaging and ultimately does nothing to educate consumers or make them aware of where there may indeed be some benefit from exercising moderation when it comes to dietary choice.
Perhaps more concerning is the degree of confusion and misunderstanding that such headline-grabbing approaches inspire, further preventing people from understanding complex issues and making informed and sensible decisions about their diet or lifestyle.


Such a position formed a central concern by members of the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research (ISFAR) earlier this year as part of a critique of the World Health Organisations ‘World Cancer Report 2014’. Members of the scientific forum called for ‘a balanced message on alcohol and health’ and found that ‘the WHO seriously undermines its credibility by publishing a report that seems to deliberately ignore overwhelming scientific evidence showing that light-to-moderate consumption of alcohol not only reduces overall mortality but is usually not associated with an increased risk of cancer.’


Despite the obvious need for more objective and informative education around public health issues, media campaigns continue to present unbalanced information with a focus on the shock factor or which simply fail to identify the serious risks associated with alcohol abuse and heavy consumption. Such approaches also commonly focus on increased risk but often fail to realise the context within which it is important to view such risk. Another statement by ISFAR shows that 'Of all lifestyle factors related to cancer, alcohol is a modest attributable risk at 4-6%, while the attributable risk for cigarette smoking is approximately 30% and that for diet and sedentary lifestyles is 20-50%’


Claims that there is clear, scientific consensus around the globe of the risks associated with increasing alcohol intake and cancer formation are simply not true. Whilst undoubtedly the public health community will continue to argue that this is so, there is an undeniable lack of agreement since the confounding factors associated with possible cause are too great and actual causative mechanisms are simply not fully understood.


By example, a paper by Klatsky et al. published this month in the journal ‘Cancer Causes and Control’ reports that underreporting of heavy alcohol consumption is skewing data that would imply an increased cancer risk from moderate alcohol consumption. Indeed, much of what is understood about the relationship between alcohol consumption and cancer risk is only associated with heavy, immoderate consumption.


However, what cannot be ignored is the growing scientific consensus that regular, moderate alcohol consumption actually confers an overall net benefit in terms of reduced mortality risk. Here, there is clear evidence that those who drink moderate amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, stand to live longer than those who either drink nothing at all or those who drink excessively.
Clearly, the importance of conveying clear and accurate information about the true nature of alcohol is vital to help the public make informed and sensible decisions about consumption.
Watching the BBC news this week, I can’t help but wonder whether the inferred consequence of higher prices associated with alcohol as a factor of the declining incidences of violent crime in the UK are the whole story. The brewing industry has certainly made concerted efforts and significant investment to be responsible in their approach to alcohol marketing and through their support for educational programs around the world which aim to teach young people about the risks of alcohol abuse.


When all is said and done, the most valuable lessons that I have learnt about alcohol and the importance of moderation were taught to me by a head brewer and not the media or the health sector.



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