Tequila in Mexico, Belikin in Belize, Guaro in Costa Rica, Aguardiente in Colombia, Pisco Sour in Peru, Singani in Bolivia and now that we are in Brazil, Caipirinha. The simple name of certain alcohols suggests travels. It triggers pictures of exotic destinations. I tasted some of these beverages. Not all of them, I’m not a fan of strong drinks.
These drinks are considered part of the discovery of the countries we are passing through. Sometimes they are considered even more important than the national dish. I am sure most people can name the typical Brazilian alcohol. I wouldn’t be so confident if I asked about the national Brazilian dish (It is Feijoada). I heard many times “you MUST taste this drink”. It often sounds like the most important thing to do in order to understand the country where we are. But unlike the national dishes, behind these spirits, there is a very active and gigantic industry. Many actors in the drink industry fight against research. Parties, relaxation, social vector, all the marketing campaigns reinforce these representations. What else? “Drink in moderation” it will be ok…
Obviously, alcohol has an impact on health. Obviously? Not that much. Only 13% of people are aware of the link between alcohol and cancer according to one survey done in UK1. And it is only one among many risks.
About this link between cancer and alcohol, I heard many things, even from supposedly well-informed people. “Cancer is just because of the sugar in the drink”, “One drink a day reduces the risks” etc. The reality, about 4% of cancers are directly caused by alcohol2. A greater public awareness of the risks linked with the alcohol, particularly the risks of cancer, is a threat to the alcohol industry. Therefore the publications of scientists in this environment are often badly received and immediately criticized. To face the research findings, the alcohol industry uses the same techniques used some years ago by the tobacco industry to mislead people. Denial, distortion, and distraction2.
The reactions following a study published on September 7th, pointing the strategies of the alcohol industry, are not new. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, an American spirits association “The authors are anti-alcohol” and “their study is selective”.
A few examples I took from this study
Denial: “Recent research suggests that light to moderate drinking is not significantly associated with an increased risk for total cancer in either men or women.” International Alliance for Responsible Drinking
Distortion: “Moderate wine intake may actually reduce the risk of oesophagus, thyroid, lung, kidney and colorectal cancers as well as Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. …Concerning breast cancer, there may also be a protective role for wine.” Wine Information Council. Yes, it is not because I am French that I will spare wine. It is clear that the increased risk of other cancers as a result of drinking alcohol far outweighs any possible decreased risk of these cancers according to the Committee on Carcinogenicity.
Distraction: “Not all heavy drinkers get cancer, as multiple risk factors are involved in the development of cancers including genetics and family history of cancer, age, environmental factors, and behavioural variables, as well as social determinants of health.” Australia: Drinkwise
This shows that communication can be extremely difficult for researchers. Moreover, they are rarely trained for it. This turns to their disadvantage when they implicate industrial structures that have the know-how and capacities in terms of communication. The original message from the researchers is quickly lost in the middle of many contradictory messages. Therefore their work loses credibility and the public cannot be properly informed. Because ultimately, to consume or not is a choice everyone must do with full knowledge of the facts.
There are places in the world where you will not have to wonder if you should or not try the typical alcohol. It is the case in some parts of India and Indonesia where alcohol is banned. In many other countries, it will be up to you. So far, while traveling, I didn’t experience a situation where alcohol tasting gave me an insight of the country. And you? Do you try the typical drinks when you travel?
1 Public awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer in England in 2015: a population-based survey. Penny Buykx, Jessica Li, Lucy Gavens, Lucie Hooper, Melanie Lovatt, Elena Gomes de Matos, Petra Meier and John Holmes. BMC Public Health. 2016; 16: 1194.
2How alcohol industry organisations mislead the public about alcohol and cancer. Mark Petticrew, Nason Maani Hessari, Cécile Knai, Elisabete Weiderpass. Drug and Alcohol review. 2017.