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Legal warnings from alcohol brand-owners have halted the world’s first trial of labels warning that consuming alcohol increases the risk of cancer, raising question marks over similar plans elsewhere.
Unnamed alcohol brand owners have warned the state-owned alcohol retailer applying the labels in Canada’s Yukon territory that it may be infringing trademarks and guilty of defamation, say local media reports.
The Yukon trial had been running from one shop for little more than one of the eight months intended. No new labels have been applied to bottles and cans, but those already applied have be left in place. The trial began late last month.
The enforced hiatus may have implications elsewhere: Ireland decided this month to introduce labels warning of the risk, while Australia’s newly-released draft alcohol strategy mentions alcohol’s contribution to cancer cases and suggests “readable, impactful” warning labels.
Campaigners have also raised concerns that the labels have replaced rather than supplemented labels warning of the risk of drinking alcohol in pregnancy. Labels saying “Warning, drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause birth defects” had been applied since 1991.
The trial is part of the second phase of the Northern Territories Alcohol Study led by researchers from Public Health Ontario and the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria. Its research suggests enhanced labelling could have benefits.
Yukon has the highest alcohol sales per head in in Canada. ■
Last night, NBC Nightly News ran a story about the cancer risks related to alcohol consumption. But instead of communicating those risks in a way that would educate and inform, NBC’s coverage was an example of misinformation and fear-mongering. … Viewers who think an MD byline ensures the ultimate in accurate and balanced TV reporting should think again.
Comment: Agreed: Journalists should try to include absolute risk in their stories. So we should not just say, for instance, that the odds of something happening has doubled, but from what. Has it gone from, say, one in a million to two in a million or from one in three to two in three? That said, indications of absolute risk are often not readily available. Journalists cannot be expected to do the advanced statistical conjuring needed to turn relative risk into absolute risk, whether or not they are medical doctors. Medical doctors too are also rarely advanced statisticians, nor can they be expected to be familiar with all the epidemiological nuances they would need to perform such a manipulation. I would also shy away from interfering with data in this way, knowing as a rusty mathematician that it is unlikely to be straightforward. In this particular case, as in many others, the statement from the American Society of Clinical Oncology only contains figures for relative risk (see table), although this accompanying release says 5-6% of new cancers and cancer deaths are “directly attributable to alcohol”. The society told Alcohol Companion that its figures imply around 3,326 deaths from alcohol related cancer for every 100,000 cancer deaths, meaning alcohol is involved in around 1 in 30 cancer deaths. Incidentally, heavy drinking appears to multiply the risk of head and neck cancer by five, which is a 400% increase in risk, rather than the 500% in the graphic and headline. It would be interesting to know if the society has more detailed absolute risk figures for each type of cancer. Typically news stories will need to be reported well before any request for additional figures is answered. ■