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Alcohol and ‘health halos’: a risky mix

Alcohol marketing strategies are being scrutinised again as new research highlights the misleading health claims being placed on alcohol products.

Lead researcher Ms Julia Stafford, Executive Officer of Curtin University’s McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, told doctorportal that there has been a shift among consumers towards health and wellness.  The alcohol industry has responded to this threat by advertising products labelled as low carb, low sugar, natural or preservative free.

“We’re seeing alcohol marketing often picking out very minor points about their products, like highlighting that it’s infused with electrolytes or purified water.”

“Using these health claims, which really don’t mean much to your health, creates this health halo over these products which still contain similar alcohol to other products”

The study, published in Public Health Research and Practice, analysed examples of new product developments and monitored alcohol industry publications for information on key trends and comments from alcohol company executives.

The researchers said that existing regulations do not appear to be sufficient in restricting health-related claims made by alcohol marketers as alcohol products continue to be advertised in association with health. They added that this can have significant implications for the way consumers view these alcohol products.

The problem with health halos

Ms Stafford said the main danger with alcohol products making these claims is that although the drinks aren’t genuinely healthier, “people might think they are. They have this health halo over them and pretty packaging with a fruit on it so they might consume them differently.”

“We’ve seen with low carb beer that people think it’s healthier and therefore might be more inclined to drink more of it on occasions.”

However, the label does not change the fact it is still a full-strength alcohol product, with all the same health risks associated with it.

She said the key focus of alcohol labelling should be the alcohol content, “not all these other claims about it being fresh, pure, natural or preservative free, which is misleading consumers about the health impact of the product.”

Regulation of alcohol marketing is still lacking

In Australia, alcohol marketing is self-regulated by the alcohol and advertising industries.

“That has all sorts of problems with it – those regulations are incredibly weak in lots of different ways,” Ms Stafford said.

Current marketing regulations do not cover the kind of health-related claims that are now being made on alcohol product packaging.

“The industry knows what they can do to get around existing regulations and still give consumers a strong suggestion these products are healthier and make health-related claims without breaching any of the regulations.”

The evidence base is strong – now it is time for action

Ms Stafford said there is already a strong evidence base to support the need for industry reform. Governments need to step in and take self-regulation away from the alcohol and advertising industries, and implement legislated and independent controls.

“Our research looking at the health claims is really just adding one extra part to that already existing, strong rationale for why governments should be regulating alcohol marketing much better than what is currently happening.”

Light drinkers have lower risk of death and cancer

 

Alcohol misuse is a major public health concern, and there is considerable evidence that heavy drinking is associated with a range of negative health outcomes, including cancer. However, the link between light to moderate drinking and health is more complex.

Previous studies have consistently found that light to moderate drinkers live longer than lifetime teetotallers. The evidence from cancer research gives a different impression: even light to moderate alcohol consumption is linked with an increased risk of cancer. These differences have led to confusing public health messages about the health impacts of light to moderate alcohol consumption and what counts as drinking in moderation.

To help give a clearer message, we decided to assess both cancer and mortality outcomes together, using the same methods and same population, to see what the overall link between alcohol and these major outcomes are.

For our study, published in PLOS Medicine, we used data from nearly 100,000 people involved in the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial who had completed a dietary questionnaire with questions on their alcohol intake at various stages of their life. We averaged their alcohol intakes over their adult lifetime until the start of our study.

What we found

Previous studies have tended to separate former drinkers from current drinkers and classed them as non-drinkers. This separation can underestimate the negative health effects of drinking, as former drinkers may have stopped drinking due to health scares related to their drinking habits. Instead, we looked at the average lifetime alcohol intakes, which avoids separating former drinkers from current drinkers.

We then linked this data to data that showed which of these people were diagnosed with cancer, or died over an average of nine years after completing the questionnaire. This allowed us to assess whether the combined risk of developing cancer or dying within these years differed between people with various levels of alcohol intake.

We attempted to account for as many other differences between these groups as possible, such as smoking and diet, so that we could be more sure that any differences in risk between drinkers and never drinkers were due to differences in their alcohol intake.

The results indicated that a J-shaped relationship (see graph below) between alcohol and combined risk of cancer or death was apparent, with the lowest risk apparent in people drinking less than seven alcoholic drinks per week (less than one drink per day) – where one drink equates to about the units found in a medium strength bottle of beer – compared to never drinkers or heavier drinkers. Heavier drinkers (who drank more than three drinks per day) were at a 20% higher risk of getting cancer or dying prematurely than light drinkers.

J-shaped curve.
PLOS Medicine

Drinking alcohol is a personal choice and it is not our aim to tell people whether they can or can’t drink. The aim of this study is to provide robust evidence so that people can make informed, healthy decisions about their alcohol intake.

We urge caution in interpreting the results comparing light drinkers to lifetime teetotallers, though, as the reasons for the reduced risk of cancer or early death in light drinkers are still being debated by scientists.

It has been suggested that light drinking may have beneficial effects on heart health, though this has not yet been proven. Light drinkers may also be at a lower risk of premature death as they tend to be wealthier, so may have better access to healthcare and may follow other healthier lifestyle behaviours, such as being more physically active. Until the debate is settled, it would be unwise to suggest that non-drinkers should begin drinking as a way to benefit their health.

Guidelines may need updating

There are large differences between countries in alcohol-related guidelines about what is considered to be drinking in moderation. The UK recently lowered its guidelines to suggest that both men and women do not drink more than six alcoholic drinks per week. The US guidelines are higher for men and recommend less than 14 drinks per week for men and less than seven drinks per week for women.

The ConversationWe hope that our results will help to inform future public health guidelines around the world regarding alcohol consumption. It’s time for consistent messages about what counts as drinking in moderation. Our findings suggest that drinking in moderation might be less than seven drinks per week.

Andrew Kunzmann, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Queen’s University Belfast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What alcohol does to your looks: study

 

The received wisdom holds that alcohol consumption has a visibly ageing effect – but it’s an assumption that’s remained untested in a prospective study until now. Danish researchers looked at the effects alcohol and smoking on four visible age-related signs: arcus corneae (an opaque ring around the cornea), xanthelasmata (plaque on or around the eyelids), earlobe crease and male-pattern baldness – all of which have been associated with higher cardiovascular risk and mortality.

The researchers used a random sample of nearly 12,000  adults from the Copenhagen City Heart Study, a population-based, a large-scale prospective study that has been running since 1976. For this sample, the mean follow-up was 11.5 years.

A strong association was found between biological ageing of the body and heavy alcohol and tobacco consumption, affecting three of the four indicators. Only male-pattern baldness was not consistently associated with drinking or smoking.

Women who consumed 28 or more standard drinks per week had a 33% greater risk of arcus corneae, while men who had 35 or more standard drinks per week had a 35% greater risk of the same condition.

But the good news for more moderate drinkers is that the occurrence of age-related signs in this group was similar to that of non-drinkers. Moderate drinking counts as one drink per day for women and two drinks for men.

Low to moderate alcohol intake has been associated with health benefits in several studies, although that finding has been controversial and many argue that it is not causal.

The study authors from the University of Southern Denmark cautioned that the study was observational and couldn’t determine causality between smoking, drinking and ageing. They pointed out that the study didn’t account for stress or other factors potentially underlying both alcohol use and cardiovascular risk.

But they noted previous research suggesting mechanisms that might link alcohol consumption to premature ageing. One such study looked at male alcohol intake and telomere length, which is a marker for ageing. This study showed even minor alcohol consumption in midlife was significantly associated with shorter telomere length, with a 10-year difference in biological age between teetotallers and the highest consumption level.

You can read the full study here.