New government guidelines claiming a link between alcohol and cancer won't have a direct impact on drinking, but they do raise awareness of harm and so may alter social attitudes towards alcohol, according to an editorial in The BMJ.

Professor Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge and a member of the committee that produced the guidelines, concedes there is no evidence about any impact of health related guidelines on behavior, including for alcohol, risk information is still worth a try.  

In the week after publicity due to publication of the new guidelines, Google Trends showed more searches for "alcohol and cancer" compared with the same week in 2015. No similar increase occurred in searches for "alcohol and heart disease" or "alcohol and health."  Flawed logic? Yes, it would be like finding searches for "sausage and cancer" in the week after the IARC declared processed meat the same hazard as cigarette smoking and thinking that it meant the guidelines weakened positive associations about sausage. 

Obviously, few people oppose governments intervening to provide information about risks to their health as a prelude to potential behavior change, but they engage in more critical thinking when it is something they like. When IARC declared the pesticide glyphosate a probable carcinogen, for example, no one minded, because they don't have it in their lives directly, but sausage being more hazardous brought scorn. Likewise, a PSA about alcohol is fine, as long as it is directed at heavy drinkers. People are against higher taxes on alcohol to reduce drinking, though.

But she says that people "are more accepting of increases to a minimum price for a unit of alcohol when they see evidence of its effectiveness at reducing hospital admissions and crime related to alcohol, an effect seen in other policy domains such as obesity."

She believes that the new alcohol guidelines "are unlikely to have a direct impact on drinking. But they may shift public discourse on alcohol and the policies that can reduce our consumption."

And she concludes that, as the debate around the guidelines continues, with dominant references to the nanny state and the killing of joy, "we should keep in focus the objective of alcohol policies: to reduce the blight without losing the delight that alcohol brings."

Source: BMJ