By Rebecca Vesely
Thursday, October 21, 2004
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and many companies have been peddling pink products to help the cause. Critics, however, say it's a dubious way to raise funds and urge shoppers to know how businesses handle the proceeds.
SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)--Seeing pink these days?
You're not the only one. From Estee Lauder's pink lipstick to pink Keds to Conair pink travel hair dryers to Jimmy Choo hot pink high heels, numerous companies are peddling pink products.
That's because October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which each year raises millions of dollars for breast cancer charities and reminds women that early detection works.
So what's wrong with that?
A lot, says Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco nonprofit that this month launched "Think Before You Pink," an awareness campaign that casts a critical eye on social marketing campaigns for breast cancer.
"Companies have figured out that if you slap a pink ribbon on a product, people will buy it," says Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action. "It's time to look past the ribbon and ask, 'Where is the money going?'"
Some manufacturers clearly state on their packaging how much money is going to a specific organization and who will benefit. Others aren't so clear. They say only that a "portion of proceeds" or, more commonly, a "generous portion of proceeds" will go to breast cancer research.
In a partnership with journalist and activist Barbara Ehrenreich, Breast Cancer Action is urging consumers to ask where their money goes after they buy a pink product.
Consumers, Brenner says, should educate themselves on how much their purchases will really help breast cancer organizations financially and how those groups, in turn, use the money. If a retailer can't tell them, they should walk away.
Breast Cancer Action is also calling for more coordination within breast cancer research funding to speed work toward a cure. Although millions of dollars pour into breast cancer research, no one knows exactly how much money is being raised and spent every year or where all the money goes, Brenner says.
The group is suggesting a worldwide effort, along the lines of polio eradication, to find a cure for breast cancer. Since 1994, California has been coordinating its efforts on a state level under the California Breast Cancer Research Program, and Brenner says it's a good model. Funded by a tobacco tax and a tax check-off on state income tax forms and administered by the University of California, the program has awarded nearly $165 million to breast cancer research and education in the state.
Breast Cancer Action is particularly critical of the "Save Lids to Save Lives" by the Yoplait. General Mills, which owns Yoplait, donates 10 cents to breast cancer research for every lid consumers send back to the company in September and October.
At that rate, each consumer would have to eat three Yoplait yogurts a day for the month of October to raise just $36, excluding postage, Breast Cancer Action points out.
Pam Becker, spokeswoman for Minneapolis, Minn.-based General Mills, says the company is proud of the campaign, which has been running for seven years, and will raise $2.1 million for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, in Dallas, this year. About $1.1 million will come from the lid campaign and another $900,000 will be from a company donation.
"That contribution is not insignificant," Becker says. "And pink lids help raise awareness."
Brenner says that at this point, awareness isn't enough.
"At this point aren't we all aware of breast cancer?" she retorts. "With 40,000 American women dying from breast cancer each year, shouldn't we focus on solving the problem?"
Breast Cancer Action is also critical of Yoplait because some of its yogurts may contain recombinant bovine growth hormone, a drug used to increase milk production in dairy cows.
Some companies have moved to eliminate rBGH from their products and Canada and the European Union have both banned rBGH due to concerns about links between a number of illnesses and growth hormones.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved rBGH in 1993 after conducting a safety review.
General Mills' Becker says more awareness is needed to encourage women to do self-breast exams and mammograms.
"One thing that is helping people these days is early detection and we need to encourage that," she says. She also points out that no direct link between rBGH and breast cancer has been established.
A study released this month by the Breast Cancer Fund, a San Francisco environmental group, and Breast Cancer Action indicates that as many as half of all breast cancer cases remain unexplained by personal characteristics, such as genetics. The report points out that numerous researchers believe many cases are linked to environmental factors. About 216,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States this year.
Shelley Alpern, vice president and manager of social research at Trillium Assets Management Corp., a Boston-based socially responsible investment firm, has looked closely at social marketing and breast cancer. She says the Breast Cancer Action is on the right track.
"There's the whole question of where the proceeds go and how much of it goes directly to the campaign," Alpern says. "The answer is, 'however much the company decides.'"
Alpern says consumers who are collecting yogurt-container lids to raise money for breast cancer would be helping more by giving directly to the Komen Foundation. Consumers should also be wary of any campaign, she adds, with an "inherent conflict of interest," such as a car dealership running a breast cancer campaign.
"The product pumps out carcinogens, and yet they are trying to pinkwash their own image."
"Pinkwashing," or aligning a product with the fight against breast cancer, helps companies associate themselves with a good cause, Alpern says.
But companies that produce pink products say their contribution has been significant.
"The progress in the last 15 years, since the cosmetic companies have been involved, has been tremendous," says Irene Malbin, vice president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, a trade group in Washington, D.C. "Awareness programs have not only helped educate women about the benefits of early detection, but the media attention that the programs have generated has also mobilized the clinical and medical field to push for more advancements in finding a cure."
And it's unlikely that everyone who buys a pink product would otherwise write a check directly to a breast cancer organization, Malbin points out.
Recipients of the cosmetic industry's fundraising include hospitals, cancer centers and nonprofit breast health programs.
One large beneficiary is the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which over its 18-year history has raised $740 million to fight breast cancer. A peer-review committee at the foundation evaluates applications for funding for research, as well as education, screening and treatment for underserved populations.
Rebecca Vesely is a health care reporter at the Oakland Tribune.
The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation--
Yoplait--Save Lids to Save Lives:
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