Is silence golden?

California grassroots activists get a big win, but where was the American Cancer Society?

Cosmetics companies will have to tell state health officials about product ingredients that might cause cancer, after passage of SB484. Supporters of the law, from left to right: California State Assemblywoman Judy Chu, State Senator Carole Migden, and Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco.

Cosmetics companies will have to tell state health officials about product ingredients that might cause cancer, after passage of SB484. Supporters of the law, from left to right: California State Assemblywoman Judy Chu, State Senator Carole Migden, and Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco.

Photo By Rebecca Farmer

American Cancer Society (

Breast Cancer Action (

Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrances Association (CTFA) (

ACS’s “Look Good, Feel Better” (

Look Good, Feel Better for teens (

Breast Cancer Fund (

Environmental Working Group (

Politics as usual recently came to a screeching halt when a bill requiring safer cosmetics got past the Legislature and the governor’s veto pen.

The political showdown unfolded on the last day of August 2005 when Senate Bill 484, the California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005, squeaked through the state Assembly.

Grassroots cancer and environmental groups argued for the legislation, which they said will prevent the disease by stopping it at its source and requiring cosmetics companies to tell state health officials if ingredients could cause cancer.

It survived a fierce lobbying effort. Industry lobbyists outnumbered, outspent, but this time couldn’t out-argue the pro-SB484 coalition. Even without the backing of major mainstream health groups like the American Cancer Society (ACS), the Republican governor signed it into law on October 7.

The bill’s author, Senator Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) said that common sense prevailed. “It is beyond belief that a consumer is not told whether he or she is putting carcinogens on their skin, in their hair or on their face,” she said.

Activists predicted that the bill’s impact would extend nationwide. “The nature of the opposition makes it clear that industry knows that as California goes, so goes the nation on issues of consumer safety,” said Barbara Brenner, executive director of San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action.

“The passage of this bill is a huge step forward for people who care about why so many people have cancer and other health problems,” said Brenner. “We overcame enormous opposition from a very well-funded cosmetics industry, and we have them on the run.”

The bill’s proponents said that one of the new law’s biggest obstacles was the silence of the ACS, the most powerful cancer-research and cancer-lobbying organization in the world. The ACS is now the second-largest charity in the world, with a net worth of over $1 billion and an average $1 billion in annual revenue.

Founded in 1913, the ACS is “the nation’s largest voluntary health organization and the most experienced cancer control organization in the world,” according to their Web site. They have a national staff of 6,500, more than 2.75 million volunteers, 14 state divisions and 3,400 local offices. There’s also the American Cancer Society Foundation, ACS Action Network, and ACS Products, Inc.

SB484’s chief opponent, the Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrances Association (CTFA) gives $10 million annually to ACS’s “Look Good, Feel Better” makeup program for cancer patients. Conducted worldwide, it provides makeup, wigs and individual styling sessions for recovering cancer patients, according to their Web site. They also reach out to teens; male cancer patients; Spanish-speaking patients; and use 25,000 hairstylists, wig experts, estheticians, makeup artists and nail technicians who volunteer their services.

But what the ACS feels is a good partnership, others call a conflict of interest. Brenner and members of the pro-SB484 coalition have come to believe that the ACS is not interested in cancer prevention outside its “lifestyle” theory: don’t smoke, keep physically fit and eat a healthy diet.

“We were on the cusp of getting (the California ACS division) to write a letter of support which is unheard of from them in these environmental health issues,” lamented Nick Guroff, a Sacramento lobbyist for the Washington, D.C.,-based Environmental Working Group. But the ACS’ national bosses in Atlanta shut down that idea, he said.

Ann Goure, California ACS spokeswoman, flatly denied that the cosmetics-industry group influenced the ACS’ position on the bill.

Goure stated, “Our decisions are based on scientific data and we did not feel that the information was sufficient (to support SB 484).”

But the bill doesn’t call for any new scientific testing, said Breast Cancer Fund (BCF) executive director Jeanne Rizzo. “The bill just says they have to tell us the ingredients. They don’t have to reveal it to the public, just to tell the (California Department of Health Services).” BCF was part of the pro-SB484 coalition.

Guroff continued, “There’s a lot of frustration within the environmental-public health community because ACS has stood on the sidelines when it comes to factors that cause cancer clusters.”

And Rosaline Chan, legislative assistant to California Assembly member Judy Chu, said, “There was a huge gap in the absence of mainstream health groups. It would help to have had more mainstream health groups involved,” especially the ACS. Chu has introduced even more stringent cosmetic-safety bills that failed, and a biomonitoring bill that was vetoed, Chan pointed out.

Like Guroff and Chan, Rizzo wants the ACS to do more. “Our concern is there’s not a strong enough voice on prevention and environmental causes of breast cancer. If you are silent on that, then you are letting down the basic tenet of public health,” she said.

It wouldn’t be the first time the ACS stepped in on affiliate’s activities regarding environmental or product-safety issues, according to activists and an internal 1996 ACS memo, obtained for this article. The national vice president of public relations issued a memo to all state offices instructing them to seize copies of a brochure titled “Warning: The use of pesticides may be hazardous to your health,” produced by the Erie County, N.Y., ACS office.

It wasn’t that the brochure was incorrect, per se, but rather it collided with ACS policy. Greg Donaldson, ACS national vice president of communications at the time of this interview, said, “The Society has consistently advocated that government procedures for establishing pesticide tolerance levels deserve continuing review, particularly for their suitability in protecting young children and people with special dietary needs and preferences.” In a nutshell, the affiliate jumped the gun.

He added, “With respect to any assertions about the American Cancer Society’s global positions on environmental issues, the Society is an organization with a historical bias toward and basis in science. All of our organization’s policy recommendations are supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence, without regard to any special interests.”

According to ACS publications, dietary pesticides, “toxic wastes in dump sites,” ionizing radiation from “closely controlled” nuclear-power plants, and non-ionizing radiation are all “at such low levels that risks are negligible.”

Yet, one should consider the chemical benzene: Cigarettes are made with it, and so is automobile exhaust from combustion engines. The ACS has never applied its political and financial weight behind the fight for clean air, despite the kind of “human evidence” they say is required: The government’s own agency, the EPA, concluded that 50,000 people are “dying early” because of air-particulate pollution, according to news reports.

These kinds of inconsistencies were what drove women to form a cancer movement entirely separate from the ACS, said Brenner. “Breast Cancer Action wouldn’t need to exist if the American Cancer Society would do what it says it’s doing.”