Dr Otis Brawley Resigns From American Cancer Soc Over 'Deals'

Zosia Chustecka

November 06, 2018

UPDATED WITH COMMENTS November 7, 2018 // Long-serving chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society (ACS) Otis Brawley, MD, has resigned from his post, reportedly because of "his dismay over some commercial partnerships" that the society had made recently, according to an article in the New York Times.

Dr Otis Brawley

Brawley had been at the ACS for 11 years. As chief medical and scientific officer, he was responsible for promoting the goals of cancer prevention, early detection, and quality treatment through cancer research and education, according to a biographical note on the society's website.

He is also professor of hematology, oncology, medicine, and epidemiology at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer at the society, announced on Twitter that he will take over the position and will serve as the interim chief medical officer "as we seek a permanent replacement.

"Otis will be sorely missed as he leaves behind an outstanding legacy of leadership," he added.

Another tribute came from David Sampson, director of media relations at the ACS, who described Brawley as "my friend; my mentor; never afraid to speak the truth."

He also posted a snippet from Brawley's goodbye email, which read: "In healthcare, one succeeds by accepting change and one benefits from being skeptical and asking questions.... Question what you believe more than anything else and remember not to confuse what you believe with what you know."

Responding to the news about Brawley's resignation, oncologist Vinay Prasad, MD, who is very active on social media and is also a columnist at Medscape Medical News, said he takes his hat off to him.

Brawley "has repeatedly had the courage to stand for unpopular, unprofitable but ultimately correct positions. We need many more like him," he wrote.

Commercial Partnerships

Brawley has not commented publicly on his resignation.

The New York Times article quoted "people close to him" as saying that his departure was "largely attributed to his dismay over some commercial partnerships, including with Herbalife International, the controversial supplements company." Others said that "he had become uncomfortable with the society's growing reliance on donations from businesses with questionable health credentials that he and others suspect are seeking to burnish their images."

The newspaper noted that commercial partnerships "have become more important in recent years as the organization's fund-raising has declined." Fund-raising generated just over $1 billion in 2007, but in 2017, the amount fell to $736 million.

Some of the recent deals struck by the ACS have been criticized both within the society and by outsiders, the newspaper reported. They include partnerships with Long John Silver's, a seafood chain best known for batter-fried fish; Tilted Kilt, a sports pub showcasing "Kilt Girls" in skimpy red plaid outfits; and Herbalife International, a supplements company with a controversial history.

Herbalife ran a pyramid sales scheme involving weight loss shakes and supplements. Two years ago, the company reached a $20 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission and was forced to restructure the business to settle charges that it had deceived customers into thinking they could make substantial amounts of money by selling the product, the newspaper reports.

"The company is too controversial historically," Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine, who is also a Medscape columnist, is quoted as saying in the article. "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."

Herbalife donated $250,000 to the ACS and is also selling pink water bottles, cobranded with both the society's and the company's logos. All proceeds from the sales go to the ACS, the newspaper reported.

On its Facebook page, Herbalife shows the ACS logo alongside its own, with the phrase, "Working Together to Make the World Healthier and Happier and Free from Breast Cancer."

It does carry a disclaimer noting that the ACS does not endorse Herbalife products, but Caplan said the disclaimer isn't enough. "Some people are going to think that there's an implicit endorsement," he told the newspaper, "either because they don't look at the website or they just see the bottle and presume a partnership."

Sharon Byers, chief marketing officer at the ACS, said in the article, "Our intent with all of our partnerships is to generate as much revenue as we can to achieve our mission."

The society does not form alliances with tobacco companies. It assesses other companies individually, she said.

Applauded for Walking the Walk

Reacting to the news on Twitter, several cancer experts applauded the move.

"Kudos to Otis Brawley for having the courage to walk rather than just talk," wrote Colin Begg, PhD, cancer epidemiologist at the Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and editor-in-chief of Clinical Trials.

"This high-profile resignation certainly brings to light issues related to corporate relationships with the nonprofit medical associations tasked with educating the public," commented Dale Shepard, MD, PhD, director of sarcoma programs at the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute, in Ohio.

Continuing a "Remarkable Career"

Approached for comment, the ACS released an email from Chief Executive Officer Gary Reedy that informed staff about Brawley’s departure. The email said he is leaving "to take a position at a major university."

"When Otis joined us in September 2007, he became the face of cancer science and medicine for the American Cancer Society," Reedy wrote in the email.

"He already had an international reputation as a cancer thought leader with a gift for explaining complicated science in ways the public can understand. His reputation continued to grow as he authored a bestselling book on ethics in healthcare, became one of fewer than 3000 physicians named as Master of the American College of Physicians, and was elected to the National Academy of Medicine.

"Beyond his accomplishments, Otis is a beloved figure among volunteers and staff. He is known for taking time to talk with any staff member, including regaling us with his many anecdotes and stories, and for his willingness to talk with any cancer patient in need....

"We wish him well, and we look forward to continuing to follow his remarkable career," the email concludes.

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