Louisa Wall defends promoting alcohol-industry funded cancer event

Labour MP Louisa Wall is defending promoting a cancer charity event sponsored by the alcohol industry which has received criticism from health experts.

The Manurewa MP is an ambassador of the New Zealand Gynaecological Cancer Foundation which is holding a "Whiskey vs Gin" fundraising event at Wellington's Bowen House next week.

Wall shared details of the $70-per-head event - which will be put on with the help of Spirits NZ - on her Facebook page on Friday. All money raised will go to the cancer foundation.

She described it as a "fantastic night where two of our favourite spirits go head-to-head with delicious whiskeys and gins on offer through the night" and an opportunity to talk about the signs and symptoms of the five gynaecological cancers.

But the event has seen a backlash from health experts who say 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," Professor Jennie Connor from Otago University 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."

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."

But Wall is defending the event, telling Newshub that not only was it a crucial event in creating awareness about gynaecological cancers but it would also educate attendees about "host responsibility". 

"When we talk about gynaecological cancers, there are a whole lot of other signs and symptoms that if we are unaware of them, we don't realise they are actually signs we should be going to visit our GPs, our health practitioners, so we are supported to diagnose these conditions early," she said.

"For people to actually say this is all about alcohol and we shouldn't be normalising alcohol, actually alcohol is part of our society and I am not a prohibitionist, I believe alcohol is part of normal societal socialisation.

"We will have food and it is a safe environment, it is a social environment. We are promoting moderate drinking, I would have thought that ticks all the boxes."

But Wall did admit she understands the criticism that the event may have become too focused on the alcohol element. 

"One of the criticisms I do agree is maybe we made the gin vs whiskey thing too big. It wasn't supposed to be the predominant kaupapa of the night."

She also said the foundation often hosted other events where alcohol was available. 

"I can't see anyone who will be encouraged to drink based on our event or to drink in excess based on a two-hour opportunity to sample some beverages that are mixed that people maybe haven't tried before.

"I just have found it disconcerting the condemnation and the fact that people aren't sympathetic to an NGO in New Zealand who is just wanting to fundraise and have some money so they can educate people about the signs and symptoms of gynaecological cancer."

Wall said "an assessment" of the impact of the negative publicity would be made later this week.

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. 

But 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."