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Losing the Cancer War

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The American Cancer Society

  • Misreports Funding
  • Inaccurate claims of research on cancer prevention are uncovered.

In 1998, the ACS claimed that it funded nineteen large research grants on" Environmental Carcinogenesis," at a cost of $2.6 million— 0.4 percent of its $678 million revenues, apart from $873 million assets. However, the great majority of these grants were in molecular biology; only three, funded for a total of $330,000 (less than 0.1 percent of revenues), reasonably qualified as environ-mental cancer research. The American Cancer Society (ACS) also claimed that it funded 92 "Prevention" grants, with $23 million. Again, these largely dealt with molecular biology, with $2.4 million allocated to tobacco and diet, excluding any consideration of contamination with carcinogenic (besides other toxic) pesticides. A recent report has confirmed that concentrations of toxic and carcinogenic pesticide residues, including DDT, are three times higher in conventional foods than in organic foods (26). The ACS is even more dismissive than the NCI in its understanding of and priorities on primary cancer prevention. In Cancer Facts and Figures 2002, the ACS blandly reassures readers that cancer risks from ditary pesticides, hazardous waste sites, ionizing radiation from "closely controlled" nuclear plants, and nonionizing radiation are all at such low levels as to be "negligible" (27). In striking contrast to the ACS's indifference to cancer prevention, in February 2002, the Canadian Cancer Society unequivocally affirmed the precautionary principle "to develop our cancer prevention and risk reduction messages" (28). However, in its September 2001 "Discussion Document," the Canadian govern-ment effectively rejected this principle, as recently criticized by the Canadian Environmental Law Association, in favor of a cost-benefit and scientific risk-based framework (29).

The Canadian Cancer Society has also joined with the Sierra Club of Canada in demanding a ban on the "cosmetic" use of carcinogenic pesticides for the home, garden, lawn, and recreational facilities (30). The Minister of Health, Anne MacLellan, promptly rejected this demand, claiming that "there is no evidence to support such a case. Pesticides are registered only if their risks have been determined to be acceptable when used according to instructions" (31). Note that such pesticide uses are being withdrawn in the United States, in part because of requirements of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act and, in considerable part, because Canada has no U. S.-type legal liability deterrents.

The ACS track record raises grave concerns about special interests and conflicts of interest, in sharp opposition to the public interest (Appendix I). Dr. John Durant, former ASCO (American Society for Clinical Oncology) executive, president (awarded the 2002 ASCO Presidential U. S. Cancer Fighter of the Year award), charged: "It has always seemed to me that this was an issue of control by the ACS over the cancer agenda. They are protecting their own fundraising capacity" from competition by survivor groups (quoted in 43). These conflicts of interest extend to the personal. The NDC Legislative Committee cochair, Dr. DeVita, is board chair of CancerSource. com, a Web site promoting the ACS Consumers' Guide to Cancer Drugs; other Legislative Committee members also serve on the board. These members have thus developed their own special interests in a publicly funded forum.

An increasing proportion of ACS revenues come from the pharmaceutical, cancer drug, mammography film and machine, and biotechnology industries. This is reflected in generous ACS allocations for research on highly profitable patented cancer drugs and aggressive promotion of pre-menopausal mammography. In striking contrast, less than 0.1 percent of revenues are allocated to environmental, occupational, and other avoidable causes of cancer. Not surprisingly, and unambiguously, the authoritative U. S. charity watchdog, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, warned against the transfer of money from the public purse to private hands: "The ACS is more interested in accumulating wealth than saving lives" (quoted in 44, p. 566).

More seriously, ACS policies on primary cancer prevention extend from a decades-long track record of indifference to frank hostility, compounded by pro-industry bias (Appendix I). This even extends to the tobacco industry. Shandwick International, representing R. J. Reynolds, and Edelman Worldwide, representing Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, have been major public relations firms for the NDC Legislative Committee in rewriting the National Cancer Act (45).

The highly politicized and nontransparent agenda of the ACS is troubling. This is further exemplified by its direct governmental lobbying. Equally troubling are questionably legal donations to Democratic and Republican governors' associations:
" We wanted to look like players and be players," an ACS representative admitted (quoted in 44, p. 568).

The ACS has clearly disqualified itself from any future leadership role in the National Cancer Program, which should remain under NCI control.


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3. Edwards, B. K., et al. Annual report to the nation on the status of cancer, 1973- 1999, featuring implications of age and aging on the U. S. cancer burden. Cancer 94( 10): 2766- 2792, 2002.

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10. Greenberg, D. Science, Money, and Politics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2001.

11. Kolata, G. Test proves fruitless, fueling new debate on cancer screening. New York Times, April 9, 2002.

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13. Epstein, S. S. The Politics of Cancer, Revisited. East Ridge Press, Fremont Center, N. Y., 1998.

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18. Doody, M. M., et al. Breast cancer mortality after diagnostic mammography: Findings from the U. S. scoliosis cohort study. Spine 25( 16): 2052- 2063, 2000.

19. Ford, L. Letter to J. W. Stratton, Interim Director, California Environmental Protection Agency, Sacramento, June 23, 1995.

20. Greaves, P., et al. Two-year carcinogenicity study of tamoxifen in Alderley Park Wistar-derived rats. Cancer Res. 53( 17): 3919- 3924, 1993.

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22. Lichtenstein, P., et al. Environmental and heritable factors in the causation of cancer: Analyses of cohorts of twins from Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. N. Engl. J. Med. 343( 2): 78- 85, 2000.

23. Willett, W. C. Balancing life-style and genomics research for disease prevention. Science 296: 695- 698, 2002.

24. Epstein, S. S. Evaluation of the National Cancer Program and proposed reforms. Am. J. Ind. Med. 24: 109- 133, 1993.

25. National Cancer Institute. Cancer Facts. Bethesda, Md., May 25, 2001.

26. Baker, B. P., et al. Pesticide residues in conventional, integrated pest management (IPM)-grown and organic foods: Insights from three U. S. data sets. Food Additives Contaminants 19( 5): 427- 446, 2002.

27. American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures 2002. Atlanta, 2002.

28. White, J., CEO, Canadian Cancer Society. Letter to Guelph Mercury (Ontario), April 9, 2002.

29. Government of Canada. Discussion Document. Ottawa, September 2001.

30. Sierra Club of Canada and Caandian Cancer Society. Environmentalists Join Canadian Cancer Society in Call for Ban on Cancer-Causing Lawn Pesticides. Press release, March 1, 2002.

31. Ministry of Health, Government of Canada, 2002.

32. Epstein, S. S., and Hauter, W. Preventing food poisoning: Sanitation not irradiation. Int. J. Health Serv. 31( 1): 187- 192, 2001.

33. Eli Lilly and Co. Evista. Unpublished report, December 15, 1997, p. 13.

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36. Associated Press. Weed killer found to sexually deform frogs. New York Times, April 17, 2002.

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38. Wilson, D. Fateful Harvest: The True Story of a Small Town Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret. HarperCollins, New York, 2001.

39. Epstein, S. S. Got (genetically engineered) Milk! The Monsanto rBGH/ BST Milk Wars Handbook. Seven Stories Press, 2001 (

40. Gould, J. M., et al. Strontium-90 in deciduous teeth as a factor in early childhood cancer. Int. J. Health Serv. 30( 3): 515- 539, 2000.

41. Epstein, S. S. Legislative proposals for reversing the cancer epidemic and controlling run-away industrial technologies. Int. J. Health Serv. 30( 2): 353- 371, 2000.

42. Public Broadcasting Service. Kids and chemicals. Now with Bill Moyers, May 10, 2002.

43. ACS-led national cancer dialogue beset by patient mistrust, lack of openness. Cancer Letter 26( 3): 1- 12, January 21, 2000.

44. Epstein, S. S. American Cancer Society: The world's wealthiest "non-profit" institution. Int. J. Health Serv. 29( 3): 565- 578, 1999.

45. PR firm hired by American Cancer Society also represents "Team Kool Green." Cancer Letter 26( 4): 1- 3, January 28, 2000.

CANCER POLICY by Samuel S. Epstein, Nicholas A. Ashford, Brent Blackwelder, Barry Castleman, Gary Cohen, Edward Goldsmith, Anthony Mazzocchi, and Quentin D. Young, International Journal of Health Services Volume 32, No. 4, 2002

Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
Cancer Prevention Coalition
University of Illinois at Chicago
School of Public Health
2121 W. Taylor St., MC 922
Chicago, IL 60612

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