Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Getting burned

‘Young face skin cancer “timebomb”’, reports BBC News. The UK Department of Health (DoH) and Cancer Research UK have launched the second year of their SunSmart campaign with the news that 70 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds surveyed still aim to get a suntan on holiday. Cases of melanoma are rising in the UK, from 5,626 in 1995 to 6,967 in 2000. Cancer Research says: 'Experts fear that while young people are constantly warned about the dangers of holiday binge drinking and unprotected sex, not enough is being done to alert them to the dangers of irresponsible behaviour in the sun.' This comes on top of calls in recent weeks to ban under-16s from using sunbeds, and to ban sunbeds from local authority leisure centres.

The most common forms of skin cancer (basal-cell or squamous-cell carcinomas) are definitely related to sun exposure. But they are also highly treatable and rarely serious, as Cancer Research’s website confirms. The relationship between malignant melanomas, which are much more serious, and sunlight is less clear. For example, melanomas tend to appear on areas of the body that are less likely to be exposed to the sun. Rates for melanoma in Japan are comparable to those in the UK, even though there is no tradition of sunbathing in Japan.

The explanation offered for this apparent contradiction is that cancers can be caused by one-off incidents of sunburn on holiday, when parts of the body get rare exposure to the sun. Can the occasional bit of sunburn really cause cancer, or is this a case of trying to fit the facts to a shaky theory? While the British obsession with turning lobster-pink in Mediterranean resorts may lead to nasty sunburn (and the collective bafflement of the locals), it seems unlikely to cause cancer.

Professor Jonathan Rees, head of the dermatology department at Edinburgh University, believes 'there is little hard evidence to support these public health campaigns in the UK'. What such campaigns do provide is an opportunity to regulate the behaviour of young people through public health messages. There is little or no immediate threat, hence the use of the word 'timebomb'. Rather like Hell, or the non-appearance of gifts from Santa, it is a threat set in the distant future to enforce good behaviour in the present. In the case of malignant melanomas, 88 per cent of deaths in England and Wales in 2002 were in patients over the age of 45.

To suggest that young people aren't being told that sunbathing is dangerous is remarkable; the sun-and-skin-cancer link has been widely popularised in the UK in recent years. But even if awareness of the 'dangers' is low, surely the fact that warnings about binge drinking and unsafe sex are routinely ignored suggests that such campaigns are pointless?

Young face skin cancer 'timebomb', BBC News, 30 March 2004

Enjoy your moment in the sun, by Mick Hume, The Times (London), 28 July 2003

First published on spiked's Don't Panic page.