Intended for healthcare professionals


TV advertisement that linked alcohol with cancer was not misleading, says UK regulator

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 23 April 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2793
  1. Jonathan Gornall
  1. 1London

The UK Advertising Standards Authority has rejected complaints by the drinks industry that a hard hitting public health commercial depicting a tumour growing in a glass of beer was misleading and irresponsible.

Balance, an alcohol awareness organisation funded by the 12 local authorities in the north east of England, broadcast the television advertisement across the region for six weeks in November and December last year, to coincide with alcohol awareness week.

The advertisement featured a man taking sips from a glass of beer as he prepared a meal for his children. At the bottom of the glass was a small tumour, shown growing with each sip before sliding towards his mouth as he drained the glass.

“Like tobacco and asbestos,” stated the voiceover, alcohol could cause cancer. “The more you drink and the more often you drink,” it added, “the more you increase your risk.”

The 39 second advertisement ended by directing viewers to a website giving information on how to reduce their risk.

The British Beer and Pub Association, backed by the Campaign for Real Ale and the Society of Independent Brewers, complained that the advertisement “amounted to scaremongering and gave the impression that drinking a small amount or drinking moderately would increase someone’s risk of developing cancer.”

However, after reviewing the research on which the advertisement was based, including the eight nation European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study, published in The BMJ in 2011,1 the Advertising Standards Authority agreed with Balance that “there was general consensus in the scientific and medical communities that the consumption of alcohol could increase an individual’s risk of developing particular cancers, such as cancer of the breast, larynx, liver, and oesophagus.”

The authority also accepted that there was “evidence to suggest that even moderate consumption could increase an individual’s risk of developing cancer.”

Colin Shevills, the director of Balance, said that the advertisement had been designed to “denormalise the relationship we have with alcohol.”

He added, “The primary objective was to position alcohol much closer to tobacco in people’s minds in terms of the harm it causes, because until we do I don’t think we’re going to get the levels of support we require for the kind of regulation that’s needed to make a real difference, such as minimum pricing.”

The industry’s reaction to the advertisement, said Shevills, had been “a bad tactical decision.” He said, “The last industry that tried to hide the link between its product and cancer was the tobacco industry.

“The [drinks] industry constantly says that information and education is the answer to the problems that we have. We know it’s not the answer on its own, but this shows that if that information and education doesn’t accord with what they [the industry] want people to know, they are quite capable of trying to stop it reaching the public,” he said.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2793



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