Monday, September 9, 2013

CIBC Run for the Cure OR Run from Prevention?

This year, CIBC celebrated its 17th anniversary as the title sponsor of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure.  In 2012, they raised over $3 million in support.  CIBC’s homepage invites people to join them on October 6th to “Invest in a future without breast cancer”.  They play a significant role in encouraging local and national communities to raise funds for “the cause”. 

The objective of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation is to raise funds for breast cancer research, education and awareness programs.  According to their website, Canadians raised over $30 million in the CIBC Run for the Cure in the past year.  The $274 million in funds raised over the years is allocated towards “breast cancer research, health promotion, advocacy, education and awareness programs”. 

It is no doubt incredibly important that we fundraise for causes that fight cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other debilitating diseases that are so destructive to our society.  The money raised for these types of causes is truly remarkable and indeed a testament to our society’s commitment to eliminating these diseases. 

That said, a common focus of these sorts of fundraising initiatives is on the cure for the disease and less so on prevention.  Does this tendency represent a distraction, inhibiting us from separating cause from symptom? 

Focusing on the cure permits us to ignore the underlying causes of the problem.  Rather than deal with how our behaviours cause cancer, we presume that cancer is inevitable and donate to find a cure.  We see this sort of logic among both individual everyday donors and companies like CIBC.  When we think about cancer as a symptom or outcome of certain behaviour, it starts to become clear that while our efforts to donate might find a cure for cancer, the fact that our behaviour hasn’t changed is likely going to produce another cancer-like disease.  Study after study associates cancer with those chemicals and pollutants that we blindly purchase and that fall under the radar of regulatory bodies.  In the book “Slow Death by Rubber Duck”, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie uncover a wide range of products and behaviours that are likely associated with our cancer rates.  David Suzuki released the "Dirty Dozen", a group of cosmetics that possess the most cancer-causing agents such as carcinogens.  But rather than putting ‘our dollars to work” by creating a demand for things that don’t carry these properties or investing in companies that don’t use them, we put the money we save by buying the inexpensive and toxic-abundant things towards the cure.  As irrational beings, this logic seems completely rational! 

This same argument can be applied to companies like CIBC who support cancer research or the grocery industry who supports diabetes research.  Rather than think about how their own behaviour causes these diseases, they focus on using their profits to help find a cure for the symptom.  I wrote about this very concept in a critique of the grocery industry’s sponsorship of diabetes research despite the fact that 90% of the products in every grocery store tends to be processed in ways that have substantial health and ecological impacts, particularly obesity rates.  Ignoring the cause and focusing on the symptom simply makes good business sense because it allows companies to avoid disrupting a status quo that is largely dependent on low-cost highly toxic processes while having a marketing campaign like the Run for the Cure to repel those who might criticize their contribution to the problem.  If CIBC were serious about fighting cancer, they would focus on incorporating cancer causing criteria into their financing decisions.  So in addition to the creditworthiness of a company they are thinking of financing, CIBC would incorporate the extent to which this company or the project they are financing engages in activities that are known to be linked to cancer.  Similarly, Loblaw, in their commitment to reducing diabetes, would decide what products to put on their shelves based on the degree to which the food and beverage manufacture (their supplier) is using ingredients that are particularly responsible for obesity.  So why don’t they do this?  Well, it boils down to economics and the important fact that those who have the power to punish these companies (i.e. consumers and investors) don’t evaluate them on the everyday decisions made that contribute to these issues and instead evaluate them on how much money they’ve contributed to a particular cause. 

Ironically, another force against a greater focus on the causes of cancer are the fundraising institution itself.  While organizations like the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation are truly remarkable, they tend to represent an institution that encourages activists to mentally disassociate their everyday behaviour from donations.  They do this because if donors really thought about the underlying causes of these issues, they would soon realize, as already mentioned, that it makes more sense to change the criteria used to purchase products or invest in companies.  This means that rather than putting your money towards finding a cure for cancer, it would make better sense to support businesses that make efforts to avoid the use of those ingredients that are linked with cancer or investing in firms that avoid the use of these cancer causing processes.  But encouraging this sort of allocation of money would shift the money away from the foundations. What is more, if these foundations were serious about prevention, they would isolate themselves from the very large donors that have made them so successful.  Unfortunately, we don't yet have as many multi-billion dollar companies that engage in processes that prevent cancer-like diseases as we do multi-billion dollar companies that take the easy road and focus on treatment.

Cognitive psychology suggests that we tend to gravitate towards simple associations rather than complex ones.  Cognitively, we see a direct connection between donating money to finding a cure for cancer and the cure itself.  In other words, more of A leads to B:  the more we donate, the greater chance we’ll find a cure, at least in theory.  But we struggle to draw connections between things like cancer and the underlying complexity of the causes.  This is partly because no one variable explains cancer and also because the distance between the change of behaviour and the change in outcome is perceptually greater.  The Run for the Cure campaign allows me to see an almost immediate connection between my donation and the contribution to a cure for cancer but rewarding companies that sell non-toxic toilet paper or non-Teflon frying pans is more difficult to draw a connection with eliminating cancer.  On top of this, the low cost of products higher in toxicity is an especially difficult barrier to overcome. 

But the good news is that there is information out there for the average consumer to use to make these decisions.  And yes, the cost will be (perceptually) higher but that’s because there were hidden health and ecological costs associated with the production of things that cause cancer that are not worked into the shelf price.  We just struggle to see the connection between saving a few bucks on toxic soap and the health costs we will endure down the road individually and as a public health care society.  So perhaps we should rethink how we contribute to the elimination of a disease like cancer or, at least, spread our contribution across both treatment and prevention.