In response to criticism that it soft-pedaled the cancer risk from consuming alcohol, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism changed information on its website to say that “there is a strong scientific consensus of an association between alcohol drinking and several types of cancer” and that the Department of Health and Human Services lists alcohol as a known human carcinogen.
The new description of the cancer risk of alcohol brings NIAAA’s website in line with the National Cancer Institute’s. Previously, in wording that dates to 2013, NIAAA’s website had said, “Drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of developing certain cancers.”
Public health and alcoholism researcher Dr. Michael Siegel, of Boston University, last week called on the National Institutes of Health, of which NIAAA and NCI are a part, to retract and apologize for the language. He charged that the wording misled people into thinking that only drinking to the point of impairment posed a cancer risk.
“We appreciate Dr. Siegel pointing out an area that needed attention and have updated the information on this page accordingly,” an NIAAA spokesman said Monday in a statement to STAT. “We are continuing our review of the full website. NIAAA’s goal with the website is to present the most accurate version of the existing data.” NIAAA staff, he continued, “conferred with the National Cancer Institute and have updated the website to reflect the latest science.”
NCI’s website had already reflected the most up-to-date understanding of the risks posed by alcohol, especially for breast cancer. Studies have concluded that even alcohol consumption lower than one drink a day is associated with an elevated risk of breast cancer. NIAAA’s previous language, about drinking “too much,” Siegel told STAT last week, failed to reflect “scientific evidence which shows that even light to moderate drinking increases women’s risk of breast cancer.”
On Monday, Siegel said that “NIAAA was completely responsive to my concerns. It is an example (albeit a rare one) of a federal agency responding appropriately to public comment. As much as I criticized the NIAAA for the misrepresentation of the science on the original website, I have to praise them for revising their language to reflect the current science.”