Renewed government push needed to prevent skin cancers – especially among Australian teens

Australia risks losing important gains in skin cancer prevention, amid signs that young people have stopped heeding protective messages, experts write in a paper published today.

The paper, published in Public Health Research & Practice, a peer-reviewed journal of the Sax Institute, reports that there has been no national investment in skin cancer prevention in Australia for more than a decade, despite the need for funding to maintain and improve the once-ubiquitous sun protection behaviours – slip, slop, slap.

Teenagers present a particular challenge in skin cancer prevention, say the authors from Cancer Council Victoria and Cancer Council Queensland. Concerningly, sunburn incidence has not decreased in teens since the early 2000s, with 26% reporting being sunburnt on summer weekends in 2016-17 and 38% still preferring a tan.

Although there have been cultural shifts towards sun protection in primary schools, early learning centres and workplaces, the same is not the case for secondary schools. The authors call for state governments to mandate protection from UV radiation for teens in the same way that they ban the sale to minors of other carcinogens such as tobacco and alcohol.

They point out that in workplaces, UV radiation is considered an occupational health and safety risk and employers have a duty to take reasonable measures to protect staff.

“This means we are in the unacceptable situation where a parent could be better protected from a known carcinogen at work than their child is in the playground at school,” they note.

The authors report that Australia still has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with nearly 15,000 melanomas diagnosed in 2017 and around 2,000 people dying every year from skin cancer. It is also one of the most expensive cancer types to treat, with the total cost currently sitting at around $1.68 billion annually – a figure that is likely to rise as new, more expensive treatments for melanoma become available through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

“These high costs make it even more incredible that there is currently no government investment in skin cancer prevention at the national level,” the authors write.

“The lack of national investment is particularly alarming because sun-protective behaviours increase as skin cancer prevention campaign advertising increases, and they decrease when advertising is absent.”

Skin cancer prevention offers strong economic benefits, the authors note. At the national level, prevention programs have been estimated to deliver a return on investment of $3.20 per dollar spent. Recent modelling suggests investment in skin cancer prevention could save up to $363 million per year over the next 10 years based on current population figures, compared with no investment. A properly funded awareness campaign is estimated to cost $20 million a year, representing just over 1% of the annual cost of skin cancer.

The authors call for a comprehensive policy strategy at the national level comprising:

  • Implementation of mass-media national skin cancer prevention campaigns
  • Robust data collection to provide insights in Australians’ sun protection knowledge, attitudes and behaviours
  • New regulatory measures to protect children from UV radiation.

“Australia’s governments need to eschew complacency and renew their focus on implementing effective skin cancer policies,” the authors conclude.

The paper’s publication marks the start of Australia’s National Skin Cancer Action Week.

Please acknowledge Public Health Research & Practice as the source for any stories on our papers. The link to the published article on skin cancer prevention is:

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