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Controversial Cancer Pamphlet Angers French Wine Industry

Health Ministry research claims that a single glass of alcohol a day is dangerous; critics call it biased

Diana Macle
Posted: April 15, 2009

French winemakers and grapegrowers are furious over a pamphlet published by the country's Health Ministry that directly links wine consumption to cancer. They have organized a campaign calling on the government to withdraw the publication.

In February, the French National Cancer Institute (INCa) published Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancers, a document highlighting the dangers of drinking alcohol. Some 70,000 copies of the lengthy brochure have been printed for distribution to medical practitioners throughout France.

The publication has upset the wine industry because it claims that drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer by 9 percent to 168 percent, depending on the amount of consumption, regardless of whether the drink is wine, beer or spirits. It also says that wine offers no health benefits against cancer.

According to INCa, the booklet is based upon the conclusions of 500 studies carried out by acclaimed scientists worldwide. But the conclusions have sparked a growing wave of criticism, while Raphaelle Ancellin, head of INCa's nutrition and cancer program, is currently refusing to comment. Researchers in France and elsewhere have been quick to point out that the publication's recommendations lack balance. "It is true that alcohol is related to an increased risk of cancer, but the statistics the booklet is based on are for all alcohol consumption, not wine," said Roger Corder, a professor of experimental therapeutics at the William Harvey Research Institute in London and author of The Red Wine Diet. "Moderate alcohol consumption has a low likelihood of increasing cancer risk provided wine is consumed mainly with food and that wine drinkers follow a healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables and low in red meat."

Leading the legal charge against the publication is an association of vintners from Languedoc who call themselves For the Honor of Wine. The group has appealed to Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot, asking for a response by May 14. "The chapter about the risks linked to drinking wine completely ignore the many studies indicating that moderate wine consumption offers health benefits," said Jean-Charles Tastavay, a vigneron and president of the association. "To top it off the document was published without first being validated by the usual official channels."

The vignerons and other members of the industry are pointing to the conclusions of Canceralcool, a 27-year epidemiological study by Professor Dominique Lanzmann-Petithory in Lorraine, which contradict INCa's guidelines. Published in March, the study claims that because wine is rich in polyphenols, the benefits outweigh the negative effects of alcohol.

INCa's booklet has been doubly hard for winemakers to swallow because it was released at the same time as the national assembly's recent debate over a health care bill, which included amendments banning the free distribution of alcohol in public places and prohibiting the advertising of wine on the Internet. Those measures were scaled back or defeated, but the industry feels the study's release was politically motivated. "The document dates back to 2007," said Tastavay. "It is clear that it was made public only just recently to try to influence the government about these other issues."

Wine lobbying group Vin & Société is now pushing to have the controversial booklet rewritten, but wants to work constructively with the Health Ministry. "We are drinking less and less wine in this country, but cancer is still on the increase, so it's completely ridiculous to point the finger of blame at wine," said Marie-Christine Tarby, president of Vin & Société and the daughter of well-known Arbois winegrower Henri Maire. "Unfortunately the prohibitionists have wormed their way into the French department of health and are targeting moderate consumers rather than focusing on heavy drinkers."

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