The advert shows a man preparing a meal in his kitchen, sipping from a glass of beer that he pours from a bottle, along with a cancerous tumor that eventually slides towards his mouth.
“The World Health Organization classifies alcohol as a Group One carcinogen. Like tobacco and asbestos, it can cause cancer. Find out how you can reduce your risk,” a voiceover states.
The British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA), the Society of Independent Brewers, JW Lees and Co. Brewery and three other petitioners complained about the advert to the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
'Advert is misleading and irresponsible' - Beer industry
The TV ad broadcast in the Northeast of England promoted alcohol awareness charity Balance (County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust) but beer industry figures argued it was misleading and irresponsible.
This is because (in the ASA's words) "they believed it amounted to scaremongering and gave the impression that drinking a small amount or drinking moderately would increase someone's risk of developing cancer".
Colin Valentine, CAMRA chair, said in a statement to BeverageDaily.com today: "There is no doubt that excessive alcohol consumption is bad for you, but people who consume alcohol in moderation actually live longer than those who abstain altogether. Something which this video clearly attempts to sidestep.
"CAMRA support the consumption of alcohol in moderation and promote responsible drinking, particularly that which takes place in the controlled, social environment of a well run community pub," he added.
The ASA refused to uphold the industry complaint, which means that the shocking advert - watch it below - can continue to be shown in its current form.
Balance: 'We fought back against industry complaints'
County Durham & Darling NHS Foundation Trust (trading as Balance) said the Northeast England had some of the worst alcohol-related health problems in the country, and the highest hospital admission rate.
Welcoming the ASA decision today, Balance, said: “We fought back against sections of the industry that complained our TV advertisement…was misleading and irresponsible.”
The body said its own recent survey of 2,700 people found that 38% of adults drank at levels above the UK Government limits, but 91% still believed they were only ‘light’ or ‘moderate’ drinkers.
Accordingly, as a public health body, Balance said it was right to raise awareness of the risk alcohol carries and encourage people to cut down.
Balance also highlighted a 2012 WHO paper ‘Alcohol in the EU: Consumption, Harm and Policy Approaches’ that tied alcohol and cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum and female breast.
ASA sides with Balance on alcohol science
Claiming that the advert depicted routine, not occasional, drinking, Balance highlighted Cancer Research UK website statements, to the extent that even one drink a day can increase cancer risk.
The BBPA and other bodies had claimed that there was evidence linking moderate alcohol intake to a lower mortality risk and might confer an overall net health benefit compared with abstention or high-level intake.
The ASA reviewed the NHS/Balance papers and agreed there was a “general consensus” in scientific and medical communities that alcohol did raise the risk of developing particular cancers, although the risk from moderate consumption was relatively small.
“We did not consider that the advert over-emphasized the risk of developing alcohol-related cancers, or suggested that viewers should significantly reduce their intake or abstain from consumption of alcohol entirely,” the advertising watchdog added.
'We're not vilifying beer' - Balance director insists
Asked by BeverageDaily.com whether Balance didn't run the risk of vilifying the beer industry, rather than wine or indeed spirits (low-priced supermarket options in the latter category have been linked to serious alcohol abuse in the UK), Balance insisted its focus was on alcohol alone.
Colin Shevills, director of Balance, told this publication: “It is not the intention of our advertisement to vilify any particular type of alcohol. Beer was used simply to represent alcohol.
“No matter what form it takes, alcohol is a group one carcinogen, like tobacco and asbestos, and is linked to cancer. In fact, alcohol is responsible for around 12,500 cases of cancer each year in the UK," he added.
“The aim of our advertising campaign was to make people aware of the link between alcohol and seven types of cancer, then direct viewers to further information online so they could make their own, informed decision about how much they drink," Shevills said.