Wednesday 13 March 2019

Mark Petticrew doubles down

Mark Petticrew has been going through the Twitter feed of Drinkaware, presumably because it beats working for a living and because 'public health' is such a shoddy enterprise that it will let him get another peer-reviewed study out of it. In 2017, Petticrew and his colleagues cherry-picked statements by various industry-funded educational organisations to claim that they downplayed, disputed and misrepresented the risks of drinking.

Amongst many other untruths, Petticrew accused Drinkaware of ignoring the link between drinking and breast cancer despite them having a whole webpage dedicated to the subject which downplays nothing and which his article ignored. His hatchet job was criticised for making 'a number of incorrect assertions' by the Portman Group and for being 'wholly unjustified and unprofessional' by Drinkaware's scientific advisors in a slew of responses published in Drug and Alcohol Review.

The latter concluded...

It is vital that Drinkaware’s important public health function is not compromised by unjustified allegations of inaccuracy and by entirely unwarranted attacks on its independence and integrity. We therefore expect Petticrew et al. to address the inaccuracies in their paper, which we have highlighted in this commentary.

Fat chance. In the meantime, the neo-temperance lobby's grudge against Drinkaware has become more intense due to its partnership with Public Health England, and Petticrew is now back for more in the International Journal of Environmental  Research and Public Health.

He wastes no time in repeated his previous slurs...

Drinkaware and other SAPROs ['an acronym Petticrew has made up, standing for 'social aspects/public relations organisations' - CJS] were recently found to be misleading the public on alcohol and cancer risk, including presenting misleading information about the independent effects of alcohol consumption on cancer risk, using similar framings to those developed by the tobacco industry to obscure the evidence on smoking and lung cancer, in some cases not mentioning cancer in general, and breast cancer specifically [19].

The reference cited to support this pack of lies is his own pisspoor study, of course. In his new study, Petticrew doubles down by making similar claims based around the Twitter feeds of three industry-backed alcohol information organisations.

We developed a series of hypotheses a priori based on previous evidence of AI [alcohol industry] strategies and campaigns. If AI-funded bodies are independent of the alcohol industry (as is argued by Drinkaware, see for example [40]), then no clear pattern should be observed, and their tweets should not reflect alcohol industry positions. On the other hand if, as has been noted previously [41], these bodies exist primarily to reflect and defend industry positions, then their Twitter activity should reflect industry arguments, concerns and topics, and should be significantly different from those of non-industry affiliated charities.

The trick employed here is to compare Drinkaware, Drinkwise and Drinkaware Ireland to three hardline, anti-alcohol campaign groups whose mission is totally different: Alcohol Concern, Alcohol Action Ireland, and the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE). Petticrew's conceit is to use the neo-temperance lobby as a control group, implicitly portraying them as neutral organisations that are only interested in giving the public an accurate impression of the impact of alcohol consumption on health.

After looking at every tweet sent by these six organisations in 2016, he and his minions conclude:

AI-funded bodies were significantly less likely to tweet about alcohol marketing, advertising and sponsorship; issues related to alcohol pricing, including MUP...

That's because they are not lobby groups.

...physical health harms, including cancers, heart disease, dementia and diabetes; and fertility and pregnancy

Petticrew et al. count 23 Drinkaware tweets which warned of these 'physical harms' (excluding cancer) (2.8% of the total) whereas the now-defunct Alcohol Concern had 29 (4%). Not much of a difference, really, and they overlook the 101 tweets Drinkaware sent about 'drinking too much' - many of which would have been related to physical harms - compared to just 13 from Alcohol Concern (1.8%).

Alcohol Concern tweeted more about cancer (54 times) than did Drinkaware (27 times), but that is largely because Alcohol Concern liked being able to scare women with the claim that there is no safe level of drinking (for breast cancer) and were obsessed with treating alcohol like cigarettes, for which the cancer link was seen as a useful tool.

Alcohol industry-funded bodies were significantly more likely to tweet about drinking too much, cutting down, children and underage drinking, teens/parents, staying safe while drinking, alcohol units and guidelines, calories/obesity, and alcohol-free or low alcohol drinks. They are also more likely to tweet about drink driving.

So what? These are perfectly valid things for an educational charity to be tweeting about. While the temperance groups are banging on about advertising and minimum pricing, the alcohol awareness groups are giving people practical information and advice on a range of issues. That is what they're supposed to be doing. If there is a problem here, it does not lie with Drinkaware. 

AI-funded bodies do not appear to use Twitter to raise awareness about pregnancy and fertility.

That's an easy thing to check, so let's have a look at the year in question, shall we?

So that's a lie, then. In fact, Petticrew's own data show that Drinkaware tweeted about alcohol and pregnancy more times than Alcohol Concern did. 

Overall, these suggest that there is a difference between the stated visions, values and missions of the AI-funded bodies, and their actual activities.

No. There is a difference between the missions of 'AI-funded bodies' and the missions of anti-alcohol groups. The former are there to educate people and give accurate, practical advice. The latter are there to create hysteria and lobby for illiberal legislation, rather like Mark Petticrew.

There's nothing else to say about this pitiful study so I will leave you with a quote from it which highlights the state 'public health' academia is in today.

[Social media] has also been identified as a potentially rich data source for health research, with a recent systematic review identifying 137 research articles using Twitter, 108 of which involved the analysis of tweets, primarily in the form of content analysis.

Move over John Snow and Louis Pasteur.

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