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Biting the Hand That Feeds You

This has has me seriously steaming mad. As you may know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The brewing community, particularly locally, has done much to help that cause and raise money for breast cancer research and treatment. Marin Brewing has been putting on the Breastfest for ten years now, and the annual beer festival was specifically created to benefit breast cancer awareness. As a side note, Marin County inexplicably has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the country.

Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, goes all out every October with their All Hopped Up For the Cure campaign to raise money for the cause. For the last few years, they’ve decorated the brewpub in pink and auctioned a pink Vespa. It’s a cause that’s very personal to her and she spends a lot of time and energy on it every year.

That’s just the Bay Area. In Atlanta, there’s a Beer 4 Boobs beer festival. There are similar breast cancer charity events at breweries and in the form of beer festivals all over the country. Boulder, Colorado has one at Boulder Beer Co. and the Lost Abbey in San Diego sponsored an event along with White Labs. The Ladies of Craft Beer also held a “Beer for Boobs Brunch” at Denver’s Freshcraft restaurant. And that’s probably the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

My own mother died from breast cancer when I was only 22, nearly thirty years ago. I’ve lived virtually my entire adult life without the comfort and counsel of my mother so it’s pretty personal to me, as well. As a result, I’m quite proud that the brewing community is so supportive of a cause that’s near and dear to me and many of my friends.

But apparently I shouldn’t be proud of that. In fact I should be ashamed of it. That’s what Angela Wall of Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco said on MSNBC yesterday. And it wasn’t just an offhand remark, it was the considered position of her organization. They even put up a prepared graphic with the same quote, but from Executive Director Barbara Brenner telling me a second time how ashamed I should be that the brewing community might try to help her cause.

This reminds me a bit of when Anheuser-Busch put water in plain white beer cans with only their logo and where the water came from and then sent them to Haiti to help with earthquake relief. The Marin Institute had the temerity to chastise them in a press release for putting their logo on the cans and, wait for it, sending out a press release about it. I wrote all about that in Let No Good Deed Go Unpunished.

This is the same thing. But there’s a couple of ways to look at her problem with alcohol companies raising money for breast cancer. First — for purposes of discussion — let’s assume that alcohol does indeed cause breast cancer. The Marin Institute has this hokey idea of “charge for harm” where they believe that whatever “harm” is caused by people drinking alcohol should have to be paid for by the companies who make it. It’s a specious argument, but again — just to talk about it — let’s say that they’re right. Wouldn’t the industry actually paying money for their supposed harm be a good thing, exactly what their critics think they should be doing? That they’re raising money for breast cancer should be seen as a good thing, shouldn’t it? If they think the alcohol industry is causing the problem, then this should be exactly what the industry should do. But they don’t, do they? They think the industry shouldn’t be doing that, and they think they shouldn’t be trying to make a profit either.

Wall claims that “trying to sell alcohol to promote breast cancer awareness” is “shameful” because alcohol also carries a risk of breast cancer. But that makes no sense. Does she think for that reason alone, alcohol companies should simply just go out of business and stop making their products? Obviously, that would harm the economy and put thousands out of work. And of course, not everyone who drinks will get breast cancer. So presumably she’d prefer that the alcohol companies simply not raise money for her cause, but that seems counter-intuitive since it’s money that funds research into finding a cure for breast cancer. But since no one’s going to stop making alcohol just on her say so, I honestly don’t understand why she’d turn down money that might actually help find a cure if it didn’t come from the “right” source.

I would very much want there to be a cure for breast cancer found, if for no grander reason than I hope no one else has to go through losing their mother at a young age. I’m sure many people feel that way, and a number of them probably also work in the alcohol field. Some of them are my friends. But here Wall is telling me we should be ashamed of feeling that way because we work in the alcohol industry. I have to say, that pisses me off but good. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so conflicted about wanting to help a cause but feeling deeply offended and insulted by some of the people and organizations involved in it.

But perhaps the most telling part of the interview was when the MSNBC reporter remarked that one alcohol company had donated $500,000 to breast cancer awareness causes and then she asked a simple, direct question of Wall. “Do you think that money should be given back?” Wall hems and haws, but refuses to give a yes or no answer, indeed never really even addresses the question. Clearly, she’s not giving the money back. But the brewing industry, we’re the hypocrites?

On a post at their Think Before You Pink blog about this MSNBC appearance, they state that “[w]hile we do believe that the media focuses too heavily on lifestyle (diet and exercise, for example) in discussion of breast cancer risk, it’s irresponsible for companies to encourage people to ‘drink year round for breast cancer.'” So what Breast Cancer Action is saying is that they don’t like the media or how it covers breast cancer, but they’re still willing to use it when it suits them by appearing on it to further their agenda and get their message out. So I ask again, it’s the alcohol industry who’s being hypocritical by raising money for breast cancer?

One other quite strange argument made by Angela Wall for why alcohol companies should not be raising money for breast cancer was that it was no longer necessary. She said. “I don’t think anybody in this country is unaware of breast cancer in this month.” Oh, really? I guess we’re done with this issue, no more awareness or money is needed, the fight is over. Good job everybody, you can go home now. Of course, then why bother to keep designating October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month? If their work is done, why bother? You get the feeling she really hates us, if she’d go so far as to try and convince people that whatever money we raise isn’t even necessary. But I guess we should be getting used to that. Being in the alcohol industry is increasingly like being the fat kid at model camp. Everyone feels like they can make fun of us and attack us because, you know, we’re fat after all.

The basis for Breast Cancer Action’s outrage is the results of one new study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology that “found drinking alcoholic beverages, including wine, beer and liquor, may increase risk of breast cancer recurrence, particularly among postmenopausal and overweight and/or obese women.” That’s as reported in a story in Food Consumer, which also cherry picks a few other studies which show similar risks. But that’s not exactly the whole story nor is this exactly as settled as they’d like you to believe, not by a long shot. While studies do indeed appear to show an increased risk of breast cancer in women, at least one done by Kaiser Permanente shows that it’s the amount that matters, the higher the intake the greater the risk, meaning moderate drinking has less risk.

Still others show just the opposite. For example, a 2008 study at the Universidade do Porto, Porto, Portugal showed that Compounds in Beer and Wine Slow Breast Cancer Cell Growth. Still another suggests that “xanthohumol found in hops [has] the potential to lower the risk of prostate cancer, [and] researchers believe it could also reduce breast cancer risk in a similar manner — by binding to the receptors on breast cancer cells and blocking the effects of estrogen which stimulates the growth of certain types of breast cancer.” That’s about the discovery that xanthohumol is a Cancer-fighting agent found in beer.

In a fact sheet about the relationship between Alcohol and the Risk of Breast Cancer at Cornell University, there’s this sage advice:

Researchers have reported that women who consume light to moderate amounts of alcohol have a decreased risk of developing and dying from cardiovascular disease. Since more women are affected by and may die from cardiovascular diseases than breast cancer, the recommendations regarding alcohol and breast cancer may seem to contradict the reports regarding cardiovascular disease. The 1996 Guidelines on Diet, Nutrition and Cancer Prevention from the American Cancer Society suggest that most adults can drink, but they should limit their intake. Given the complex relationship between alcohol consumption and different diseases, any recommendations should be based on information about all health risks and benefits.

Exactly. Of course women should make individual decisions based upon their family history and/or other personal factors, but making a pronouncement for everyone is wrong. The overall positive effects of moderate alcohol consumption have to be weighed against individual risk factors. For example, total mortality is effected positively by moderate alcohol consumption, that is numerous studies and meta-studies have shown that people who drink in moderation will most likely live longer than people who abstain completely or who regularly binge drink. And that’s taking into account both the negative and positive risks and rewards.

So the Breast Cancer Action’s outrage seems to avoid looking at the big picture and instead focuses all it’s enmity at one individual study. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be concerned by that study, but to not factor in any other and to use that to shout at organizations trying to help their cause is unbelievably obnoxious and off-putting.

Wall also claims that alcohol represents the “only proven link between food and breast cancer.” Hmm, let’s break that down. That’s a pretty declarative statement for something as complex as the relationship between cancer and alcohol and how the body processes it. That there are studies that seem to show an increased risk of breast cancer and others which show just the opposite suggests that a definite link has hardly been “proven.” But perhaps more annoying is her saying that it’s the only food that increases the risk of breast cancer. Dietary fat also appears to be linked. “International findings suggest that breast cancer rates are minimal in countries where the standard diet is low in fat (particularly animal fat). It is known that fat cells play a role in estrogen production, especially in postmenopausal women. Therefore, being overweight may contribute to risky estrogen exposure in such individuals.” According to WebMD:

The link between diet and breast cancer is debated. Obesity is a noteworthy risk factor, and drinking alcohol regularly — more than a couple of drinks a day — may promote the disease. Many studies have shown that women whose diets are high in fat are more likely to get the disease. Researchers suspect that if a woman lowers her daily calories from fat — to less than 20%-30% — her diet may help protect her from developing breast cancer.

So if being obese puts you at risk for breast cancer and eating food is what causes you to become obese, I’d say that food played a pretty direct role there. And let’s not forget that earlier this year, Breast Cancer Action similarly chastised one of their own, Susan G. Komen For the Cure, for partnering with KFC in “Buckets For the Cure.” Characterizing themselves as “the respected watchdog of the breast cancer movement,” one of their problems with the KFC partnership was that it exploited “breast cancer and [would] do the most harm in low income communities that are already disproportionately affected by health issues like obesity and diabetes, as well as breast cancer.” They went all out against them on their Think Before You Pink blog. Maybe not a direct reference to food, but they’re certainly linking food, obesity and breast cancer with KFC’s new pinkwashing campaign to “raise money for breast cancer” is half-cooked!

Obviously, this story really pushed my buttons. Breast Cancer Action essentially is trying to invalidate the hard work of friends of mine who are sincerely trying to help find a cure for breast cancer and who have raised a lot of money in support of that cause. More than that, they’ve insulted those people for their sincere efforts. Quite frankly, I think they should be ashamed of themselves.

You can watch the entire story for yourself from MSNBC below.

Some Additional Thoughts: Since this post went online a few days ago, I was actually surprised to see that a lot of people shared my anger and frustration over this and similar experiences people have had. After reading the comments along with some experiences I’ve had with other charities, I’m really starting to believe that there’s now a “charitable industrial complex,” that these behemoth charities have become big business in their own right. And from what some of you have written, and from what I’ve seen, it appears that, like many big corporations, much of the profits go to the people who run them and only a little goes to shareholders, or in this case to the actual charitable cause itself. They seem to have become more about the money than the well-intentioned passion to do something about an issue that led to their formation. That’s a deeply disturbing trend.

Second, another thought occurred to me about how Breast Cancer Action was wrong to insult the alcohol community for their efforts. In the video from MSNBC, the piece opens by singling out Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Chambord for having programs designed to benefit breast cancer awareness. But what they didn’t ask was why? There are lots of worthy causes any company could choose to support. It’s possible it was just a calculated decision to ensnare more female drinkers, but there could be another, more personal, reason, too. All of the people in the brewing industry I know who do a lot for breast cancer, do so because breast cancer has touched their loves at some point. That’s why I’m passionate about the cause, and I suspect that that’s not an uncommon feeling. So it’s at least possible, I’d say even plausible, that Chambord decided to support breast cancer awareness because someone in the company or someone close to the company had breast cancer or knew someone who did. With so many available causes, people tend to pick the one that’s personal to them. My family tends to support Autism charities for the simple reason that our son Porter is autistic. I’d say that’s a pretty typical response. I’d be willing to say most charities are supported by the people who have been effected most by the diseases or issues at the heart of any particular charity.

According to the American Cancer Society, “[b]reast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, other than skin cancer. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer. The chance of a woman having invasive breast cancer some time during her life is a little less 1 in 8. The chance of dying from breast cancer is about 1 in 35.” So that’s a lot of people and suggests that a large percentage of the population have been touched by breast cancer, either directly or indirectly. So I think it’s entirely likely that Chambord may have started their breast cancer awareness campaign precisely because someone in the company had an experience with breast cancer and wanted to do something about it. Perhaps it was to honor a loved one’s memory or perhaps to celebrate a survivor. We don’t know because Breast Cancer Action didn’t even bother to ask before lashing out at them for trying to do a good deed. As far as I can tell, they just assumed an evil intent but never asked the simple question “why.” My guess is they don’t actually care what the answer is, and asking it may have stopped their own quest for attention and publicity and donations.

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