November 6, 2018

Why the American Cancer Society's top physician resigned

Daily Briefing

    Otis Brawley last week resigned from his role as EVP and CMO for the American Cancer Society (ACS), in part due to dismay over the organization's financial partnerships, Sheila Kaplan reports for the New York Times.

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    Brawley, who'd held the position for 11 years, did not comment on the resignation publicly, but sources close to Brawley told the Times that he was uncomfortable with the ACS's increasing reliance on commercial partnerships with companies "with questionable health credentials." Other members of the ACS said Brawley was also concerned about the administration of the organization's program to make cancer drugs more accessible in Africa.

    J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy CMO at the ACS, said Brawley's departure is "personally difficult and certainly for many in the organization it's difficult as well."

    Concerns over commercial partnerships

    Fundraising income at the ACS has gone down each year since 2007, Kaplan reports. In the past, the society had made much of its fundraising money through walks, including the Relay for Life. However, according to Michael Reich, a spokesperson for the organization, donation patterns have changed and walks have become less popular over the past decade.

    As a result, the organization has entered into commercial partnerships with a number of organizations, some of which have drawn criticism.

    ACS partnered with Herbalife, which donated $250,000 to the organization and started selling pink water bottles in October branded with ACS and Herbalife's logo. However, critics have drawn attention to some controversy from Herbalife's past, Kaplan reports.

    In 2014, FDA required Herbalife to take down a YouTube video showing a former FDA official implying the agency approved the company's weight loss supplements and shakes. In 2016, Herbalife agreed to pay the Federal Trade Commission $200 million and restructured its business to settle charges the company had deceived its customers.

    Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine, said Herbalife is "too controversial historically. It has a very non-illustrious history with regulatory bodies, association with a product of controversial and most likely dubious merit, and is not where the cancer society wants or ought to be."

    ACS has also partnered with Tilted Kilt, a sports bar that features "Kilt Girls" dressed in "skimpy" outfits, Kaplan reports. Reich defended the society's partnership with Tilted Kilt, saying they were "proud" of the partnership and that the society "would certainly work with them again."

    The society's partnership with fast food chain Long John Silver's has also drawn criticism for the fried food it offers, Kaplan reports. Jonathan Marks, associate professor of bioethics, humanities, and law at Pennsylvania State University, said the ACS's partnership with Long John Silver's "undermines the integrity" of the organization. "The American Cancer Society's website encourages readers to prepare fish and poultry by baking, broiling or poaching rather than by frying or charbroiling," he said. "But the society is partnering with a fast food company whose leading menu items are fried. Integrity requires consistency" (Kaplan, New York Times, 11/5).

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