Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Cancer Society Needed Push

Behind the recent dramatic announcement by the American Cancer Society (ACS) launching a campaign against corporate sources of cancer in the environment, workplace and diet is the untold story of Dr. Michael Jacobson and his Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
For fifteen years this 40-year old MIT-trained microbiologist has been a consumer advocate in Washington specializing in exposing harmful food additives and promoting good nutritional habits. Since these additives were known to cause cancer, Dr. Jacobson began to wonder why the American Cancer Society was not on the Congressional and regulatory ramparts demanding their removal from the food supply. With an annual budget of over $200 million, the ACS and its network of grass roots influence could have a major impact, he believed.

It did not take long for Jacobson to find his answers. The conservative ACS was playing it safe, except for its opposition to the tobacco industry. A good share of its funding is facilitated by business. With business executives joining other ‘don’t rock the boat’ elitists on its 119 member Board, the ACS was all too willing to support cancer research and leave the cancer prevention struggles, often involving powerful industrial interests, to tiny groups like Dr. Jacobson’s.

Most consumer groups in Washington would have expressed dismay at such abdication and returned to their own tasks. Not so with Dr. Jacobson. He started a task force to study and prod the ACS to be true to its slogan –“to wipe out cancer in your lifetime.” He brought together concerned scientists with ACS officials and staff to inquire why ACS was doing so little before Congress and federal agencies at a time when many cancer-causing substances were headline news. Indeed, at times ACS defended carcinogens such as nitrosamines in beer or has refused to endorse regulatory decisions as the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on the notorious livestock growth enhancer, DES.

Between 1978 and 1983, Jacobson and his allies put the spotlight on ACS, asking why it was not protecting the clean air act, demanding strong enforcement of the safe drinking water law, and moving promptly to pressure the government to reduce or eliminate exposure to formaldehyde — a proven cancer-causing material. Other public challenges to the ACS moribund posture questioned why nothing was done to help the beleaguered Environmental Protection Agency and its large Reagan-driven budget slashes.

ACS Chairman, Allan Jonas, began in 1982 to press some of these obvious avenues of cancer-prevention action. In 1983 the pressure increased. One large union withheld its contribution until ACS took stands on workplace cancer issues. Dr. Jacobson released a list of “no-actions” by ACS on major cancerous pesticides, additives, drugs and workplace chemicals.

On January 23, 1984, a group of 24 scientists publicly took the American Cancer Society to the woodshed for insisting on long-term human studies that a substance is cancerous before recommending its regulation. They stated that evidence derived from valid animal tests can be reasonably extrapolated to humans. The scientists, hailing from Harvard to Berkeley and including research scientists as well as physicians, told ACS, in effect, to start flexing its muscles.

Two weeks later, a coalition of major public interest groups and unions, including the Audubon Society and Friends of the Earth, charged the ACS with failing “to make its voice heard in Congress and the regulatory arena where it could be a powerful influence to help reduce public exposure to carcinogens.” Dr. Samuel Epstein of the University of Illinois said: “the ACS has missed dozens of opportunities to save tens of thousands of lives. Giant corporations, which profit handsomely while they pollute the air, water and food with cancer causing chemicals, must be greatly comforted by the ACS’s silence.”

To the delight of its critics, the ACS responded on February 10th with a new focus on cancer—prevention and specific support of regulatory measures on chemicals such as EDB in food and asbestos and benzene in factories. The ACS board urged congressional enactment of new “Superfund” legislation to control toxic waste dumps as a signal of a new era of activism. Allan Jonas called the Board action a “quantum step” forward.

While applauding the new ACS policy, Dr. Jacobson urged the nation’s largest volunteer health organization to “follow through with the resources and staff to vigorously advocate these policies” in Washington and around the country.

As a case study in leverage, Dr. Jacobson’s strategy is encouragement to other poor citizen groups who wonder why the giant establishment charities in their field are so meek, so bureaucratic and so remote from doing what they are appealing to their contributors to support.