NEW YORK — In the beauty industry, the Estee Lauder Cos., Revlon Inc. and Avon Products have been among the leaders in efforts for such causes as breast cancer and AIDS.

In 1955, the Avon Products Foundation was set up to provide academic scholarships in towns where the company had manufacturing facilities. Today, the organization’s goals have greatly expanded “to understand and respond to the unique needs of women,” according to Glenn Clarke, president of the foundation and director of corporate responsibility.

The foundation donates almost all of its $2 million annual budget to fill this bill. Some 11 percent of funds are still used for scholarships.

This year part of that money was devoted to funding a PBS special on early breast cancer detection. In addition, the foundation donates two seeing eye dogs per year to college women.

Last October the company founded Avon’s Breast Cancer Awareness Crusade. The company has been selling enamel pink ribbon pins through its representatives to signify breast cancer awareness for the last 18 months. In that time, Avon has raised $5.5 million for community-based detection programs.

Estee Lauder has also been a champion of breast cancer awareness and treatment. The company first became active in this issue in 1989, when senior corporate vice president Evelyn Lauder, who also is on the Board of Overseers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, spearheaded a fund-raising drive that raised $17 million. The money was used to build and equip a breast and diagnostic facility for the center, which was named the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Cancer Center. In October 1992, the company distributed 1.5 million pink ribbons through 12,000 beauty advisers for customers at 2,500 Lauder counters. The program was expanded to other Lauder divisions — Clinique, Origins and Prescriptives — in 1993. Last year, more than 3 million pink ribbons were given away at more than 5,000 of the corporation’s counters.

Also last year, Lauder beauty advisers urged women to sign a pink petition card as a plea to President Clinton for increased funding of breast cancer research programs. More than 200,000 petitions were signed and in May 1993, presented to Hillary Rodham Clinton by Evelyn Lauder and Alexandra Penney, the editor-in-chief of Self magazine. Last September the company founded the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to receive and distribute funds to support breast cancer research at leading medical facilities nationwide. Lauder divisions also introduced a special gift-with-pledge promotion on behalf of breast cancer research.

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Since the late Eighties, Revlon has spent more than $2 million a year supporting medical research and public awareness programs for a variety of women’s health issues, including breast and ovarian cancer. The company founded the Revlon/UCLA Women’s Cancer Research Program to support research into new ways to diagnose and treat breast and ovarian cancer. It also provides training for physicians and scientists.

Last year, Revlon teamed with the National Breast Cancer Coalition to collect 2.6 million signatures from consumers to the White House to declare breast cancer a national health priority and implement a comprehensive strategy to combat the disease.

Last month, Revlon sponsored the first annual Run/Walk for Women to raise money for the Revlon/UCLA Women’s Cancer Research Program.