Experts call Louisa Wall's promotion of alcohol industry-funded cancer event 'disturbing', 'very strange'

Louisa Wall's promotion of the alcohol industry's involvement in a cancer fundraiser has been labelled "disturbing" and "very strange" by experts.

The Manurewa MP is part of a group hosting a 'Whiskey vs Gin' event in Wellington next week, where attendees will sample spirits while discussing the signs and symptoms of gynaecological cancers.  

Sponsorship for the $70-per-ticket event comes from Spirits NZ. All ticket sales will go towards the New Zealand Gynaecological Cancer Foundation (NZGCF), of which Wall is an ambassador.

Wall's Facebook post advertising the fundraiser was met with criticism from those who said the alcohol industry was a poor choice for a partner for a cancer charity event.

Experts call Louisa Wall's promotion of alcohol industry-funded cancer event 'disturbing', 'very strange'
Photo credit: Facebook
Experts call Louisa Wall's promotion of alcohol industry-funded cancer event 'disturbing', 'very strange'
Photo credit: Facebook

Professor Jennie Connor from Otago University says by hosting and advertising the event, Wall is promoting the alcohol industry. 

"It's so strange to come out in such a bold and obvious way like this," she told Newshub. 

"It's a very extreme example of someone who is in a public office providing an opportunity for the alcohol industry to promote their business, in a context that makes it seems like they're doing something that is pro-social."

Connor says it's "extraordinary" for a cancer awareness group to have an alcohol-themed event, when the links between alcohol consumption and cancer are well-known. Of the 800 alcohol-related deaths in New Zealand every year, about 30 percent are due to cancer. "Breast cancer is the leading cause of death from alcohol in NZ women".

"I don't think that any health campaign should be aligning itself with the liquor industry," she says. "Industry organisations have their own agenda - to increase sales. It's a very poorly thought out strategy."

In Facebook comments defending the partnership, Wall has made a number of points that Connor says have been lifted straight from the alcohol industry's playbook. She quoted from the website for industry-backed group Cheers! and called alcohol a "social enabler", which Connor says is a common industry line. 

"The implication is that [alcohol] is a necessary part of a normal life," she says. "It's very strange."

Connor doubts the New Zealand Cancer Foundation would ever partner with the alcohol industry, but is less informed about the NZGCF, which was founded in 2007.  

"I would say that it's unclear what this organisation is, whether it's new," she says. "There is just a list of ambassadors who have public profiles. There is no information from a medical side about who is involved." 

As well as Wall, National MP Judith Collins and Magic Talk host Peter Williams are both NZGCF ambassadors. Wall is also the Health Select Committee chair. 

Alcohol Healthwatch executive director Nicki Jackson calls the partnership "absolutely disturbing".

"It's the alcohol industry trying to legitimise themselves," she told Newshub. "It's a PR move trying to look socially responsible."

She says Spirits NZ has spent years fighting alcohol law regulations with the intention of "delaying good policies". 

"What interest do they have in gynaecological cancer? They're interested in maintaining a drinking culture."

After "decades of inaction" on alcohol harm reduction, Jackson says the last thing New Zealand needs is for the industry to be legitimised by cancer charity work. 

"I sympathise with the need to fundraise, but this is the wrong partnership," she says.

"No cancer charities should partner with alcohol companies. There is no safe level of alcohol consumption."

Jackson says it's particularly jarring to see the alcohol industry held up as an ally to women's health, when cancer is the leading cause of death in women who drink alcohol.

"We need to draw a line in the sand. The community costs are far greater than the benefits of a fundraiser." 

When asked by Newshub if she'd ever received money or gifts from the alcohol industry, Wall said Spirits NZ has provided hospitality at parliamentary events she's attended in the past, including both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

"I have not personally received money or product from Spirits NZ," she says.

Wall says in August she co-hosted an event with National MP Todd Muller and Cheers! executive Matt Claridge that provided information about Kiwi drinking habits. 

New Zealand Gynecological Foundation board member Liane Leeming told Newshub the charity relies on donations and grants to help it raise awareness about the five gynecological cancers. 

She said the "Whiskey vs Gin" night is a two-hour event which is not encouraging heavy drinking and any such suggestion is "completely out of the question".

"It is hosted in Parliament, by reputable, conscientious members of Parliament, in the same manner that many other health associated charities do every year," Leeming told Newshub. 

She said NZGF and Louisa Wall have no sponsorship arrangement nor funding with any beverage or alcohol supplier.