Study ‘proves alcohol causes cancer’. The problem? There wasn’t a study

    22 July 2016

    A new study has proved that alcohol causes cancer according to the front pages of the Guardian and the i today. The i adds the kicker that the study shows that the ‘supposed health benefits of a glass of red wine are now “irrelevant”‘.

    The study was published in the journal Addiction and the only problem with it is that it isn’t a study. It’s a comment piece. It doesn’t contain any new research, nor does it contain statistical analysis of previous research. It’s not a meta-analysis or a systematic review. It is a short essay in the ‘For Debate’ section of the journal in which one woman gives her opinion about whether correlation equals causation when it comes to the epidemiological evidence on alcohol and cancer.

    gdn-frontpage i-frontpage

    For what it’s worth, I happen to agree with her that the associations between drinking and cancer in certain parts of the body, particularly around the mouth and throat, are sufficiently strong and consistent for us to be able to cry causation. I also think the strength and consistency of the associations between moderate drinking and lower mortality risk are solid enough for us to do likewise. The author of the op-ed, who seems to be no fan of booze, is more sceptical about the health protective effect of alcohol on the heart and this, presumably, is why her article is in the ‘For Debate’ section. The benefits of alcohol consumption continue to be hotly debated in some quarters.

    My criticism is not of her, but of the media. How have we got to the stage where the opinion of a single academic from New Zealand, writing in the commentary section of a specialist journal, becomes front-page news for two British newspapers? How can these newspapers justify describing an op-ed as a ‘study’ and someone’s subjective view as ‘proof’?

    It’s not as if this has been a slow news month. Has the silly season already begun?