Alcohol-trade associations lobbied the Yukon government to stop a federally funded study on the effectiveness of warning labels on bottles in late 2017, e-mails show. Public-health researchers say this shows the influence of industry officials in suppressing scientific study and consumer awareness.
The e-mails were sent between late November, 2017, and early March, 2018, to Matt King, the president of the Yukon Liquor Corp., from the heads of Beer Canada, Spirits Canada and the Canadian Vintners Association, and were obtained by The Globe and Mail via an Access to Information request. They called researchers biased and described labels that highlighted the relationship between alcohol and the risk of cancer as “false” and “alarmist.”
The Northern Territories Alcohol Study, funded by Health Canada and led by researchers from Public Health Ontario (PHO) and the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, was launched in November, 2017. The study placed labels informing consumers about guidelines for low-risk drinking, standard drink sizes and cancer risk on bottles sold at a Whitehorse liquor store.
Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said heavy drinking rates in the territory are significantly above the national average, and alcohol likely causes the most damage of any substance use in Yukon. He said the study is a major opportunity to fulfill the social-responsibility mandate of the liquor corporation, a government agency, and bolster academic knowledge about the real-world effects of health warning labels on alcohol containers.
The government of Yukon halted the study on Dec. 19, just less than a month after it started, citing concerns about defamation and trademark infringement. It resumed in mid-February without the cancer warning.
On Dec. 14, Spirits Canada president Jan Westcott said in an e-mail to Mr. King, whose agency was administering the study: “We strongly oppose any non-authorized alteration or defacing of our containers or packaging.” On Dec. 21, Canadian Vintners Association president Dan Paszkowski wrote, in response to a suggestion to allow the labelling to resume until January, that his organization “would not support the request put forward by PHO to continue the study.”
Beer Canada president Luke Harford sent an e-mail to Mr. King on Dec. 21 as well. “The researchers you are working with are not interested in testing their hypothesis from an objective and scientific starting point. They already know the conclusions they are going to present,” he wrote.
In a Jan. 16 e-mail, Spirits Canada president Jan Westcott called the research project “fatally flawed (in both design and execution).”
Mr. Paszkowski, Mr. Harford and Mr. Westcott were not available for interviews.
Erin Hobin, a public-health scientist at PHO and lead investigator of the study, said in an interview that the study was designed over two years by a large research team that included experts from four universities and the California-based Alcohol Research Group.
Before the study launched, more than 900 people were surveyed in Whitehorse and Yellowknife, the latter of which served as the control group, on their awareness of health risks associated with alcohol and low-risk drinking guidelines. The test was initially planned to run for eight months, followed by another survey on consumer awareness levels.
The trade-association presidents expressed particular concern to Mr. King over the labels that warned about alcohol and cancer, a link supported by organizations such as the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the American Society of Clinical Oncologists.
On Dec. 8, Mr. Harford wrote that “‘alcohol can cause cancer’ is a false and misleading statement.” In a March 5 e-mail, Mr. Westcott called the cancer-warning label “alarmist and misleading.”
As evidence, Mr. Harford provided a link to a website called Alcohol Problems and Solutions, run by a New York-based sociologist, which claims “drinking reduces the risk of kidney cancer.” However, the website says it “does not dispense medical, legal, or any other advice.”
Rebecca Truscott, director of population health and prevention at Cancer Care Ontario, said: “It’s really not recommended to drink alcohol as a way to prevent cancer.” And Kevin Shield, a scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) who specializes in cancer epidemiology, said alcohol is classified as a carcinogen for at least six cancers.
Tim Stockwell, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research and co-investigator of the study, said that the e-mails “illustrate the length to which representatives of the liquor industry are prepared to go to stop the truth about that causal relationship getting to their customers.”
Mr. King said the Yukon government’s decision to suspend the study and eliminate the cancer label was not because of questions about science, but concerns about “the potential for protracted litigation” from manufacturers.
However, Robert Solomon, professor emeritus of law at Western University and an expert in alcohol policy, said the Yukon Liquor Corp. has a legal duty of care as the supplier of alcohol to warn consumers of potential risks. “It doesn’t matter if the manufacturer isn’t convinced by the evidence.”
The study will conclude at the end of July. Mr. Stockwell said the project has been compromised by the two-month interruption and related media coverage. Results are expected in early 2019.