Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Junk science of the week

New science just dropped...
Labels encouraging responsible drinking struggle to get the message through

People view labels on alcoholic drinks encouraging responsible consumption as a ploy by the industry to be seen as caring and are unlikely to lead to people drinking less.

The lead author is Dr Emma Davies whose previous contributions to the scientific literature include  'Connecting through dance: Understanding conscious clubbing event experiences', 'Acceptability of alcohol-free dance in place of traditional alcohol-focused events' and 'Reflection and connection: UK Psychologists’ views and experiences of blogging'.
Her new research has been published in the British Journal of Health Psychology. It is a 'qualitative study' which basically means that it was a glorified focus group.

The new research asked 20 drinkers aged between 21 and 63 for their views on the effectiveness of these labels, and considered whether it is likely that labelling can contribute to reducing people’s alcohol consumption.

n = 20. Not a lot, is it?
All participants were shown three types of labels, one set promoting responsible drinking, one set with positive health messages (drinking less reduces risk) and one set with negative health messages (drinking more increases risk), and asked about their views on the labels and drinking more widely.

The interviews found that the participants viewed responsible drinking messages as a ploy by the alcohol industry to be seen as caring without taking tangible action, and there was little support for the use of labels.

This strikes me as a strangely politicised take. I don't believe that many drinkers are as obsessed by 'ploys' by 'the industry' as people in public health academia are. 
The study itself reports participants having remarkably similar views to a small clique of 'public health' campaigners.
Perceptions of the alcohol industry seemed to be very strongly linked to perceptions of the tobacco industry.
Participants commonly suggested that pictorial messaging analogous to graphic images on tobacco products would be more effective than the text warnings they were shown in the interviews
Several participants highlighted that the role of the industry in a capitalist neoliberal society is to make money rather than to provide health information, and thus, they felt that labelling was not an appropriate strategy for alcohol harm reduction.
Who among us hasn't highlighted the role of the alcohol industry in a capitalist neoliberal society recently? 
Who were these people?! According to the study...
Participants aged 18 or over were recruited opportunistically via an electronic university research noticeboard and social media from one geographical area in Southern England. 

There seems to have been no attempt to find a group of people who were representative of the general population. Five of them had post-graduate degrees, ten had undergraduate degrees, two were undergraduates at the time of the interview and three had A-levels. None of them were educated below A-level standard. This is hardly surprising given that the opportunity to participate in the focus group was advertised on a university notice board and through the researchers' social media feeds.
How many of them were acquaintances or students of the researchers? Alas, we are not told, but we are told that "many worked at the host institution" and the lead author often uses her Twitter feed to recruit participants for her 'qualitative research'.

Recruiting people in this way is very common in 'public health', but it creates a very obvious risk of sampling bias. Dr Davies has less than 2,000 followers and it is reasonable to assume that the majority of them broadly agree with what she tweets, which is mostly links to anti-alcohol research and gestures of support for various woke causes. If you advertise opportunities to take part in a survey or interview to a self-selecting group of followers, you are bound to end up with an echo chamber. 
What does these people's subjective opinions tell us about labelling, drinking behaviour or the alcohol industry? Absolutely nothing. She might as well have done a Twitter poll.

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