Surgeon General’s Report: “We Need To Do Something” About Climbing Skin Cancer Rates

Summer might be half-over, but there’s still plenty of time left to go tanning on the beach before fall madness sets in. But before you head out to catch some rays before Labor Day, the Surgeon General has some advice for you: don’t.

Many cancer types in the U.S. are on the decline, but incidences of skin cancer, including deadly melanomas, are rapidly rising. In a new report (PDF), acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak calls skin cancer a major public health problem and calls on individuals and industries alike to take action.

Lushniak spoke with the Washington Post about the Surgeon General’s report and the implications.

Every year, 5 million Americans are treated for skin cancers. About 400,000 of those cases are directly linked to indoor tanning, according to Lushniak. The rate of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, has tripled over the past 30 years to 63,000 new cases annually. And roughly 9000 patients per year die of melanoma — many of them adolescents or young adults.

“That’s one person every single hour that’s dying from melanoma,” Lushniak told the Post. “It’s one of the most common types of cancer amongst U.S. teens and young adults. So when we’re looking at impact, the term in epidemiology that we use is ‘years of potential life lost.’ We’re really talking about a tragic disease here, something that really affects the young.”

“That’s something, from a public health perspective, we have to do something about,” Lushniak said.

The Surgeon General’s report contains the usual advice to individuals: wear sunscreen, wear protective clothing, limit exposure, and be smart about time in the sun. Lushniak also comes down hard on the dangers of tanning beds.

“I’ve got to … call out the facts,” he told the Washington Post. “And the facts are that indoor tanning is a source of ultraviolet radiation, period. Ultraviolet radiation is a known carcinogen, period. This is a needless exposure to ultraviolet radiation.”

But Lushniak did not lay responsibility for decreasing skin cancer at the feet of individuals alone. There are also policy changes we can make that will help, he said. Just putting more shade in public places — trees and awnings — would give people more ways to enjoy the outdoors without increasing their cancer risk. Additionally, since childhood sunburn increases cancer risk later in life, Lushniak and the report advocate for strong sun protection and sun safety education in schools.

Meanwhile, for all that our shelves have an array of sunblock brands and types available, consumers in the U.S. still don’t have access to a number of sunscreens and sunscreen ingredients that are considered safe and effective in other countries. Why? Because the FDA hasn’t gotten around to them yet.

The Food and Drug Administration faces a backlog. There are many more new proposed drugs than there are regulators to check them out. Eight different ingredients have been pending approval for quite some time, and the FDA has not approved a new sunscreen in 15 years.

But as the Wall Street Journal reports, we may soon be in luck. The House passed a bill yesterday requiring the FDA to speed up their process for sunscreen approval. The Senate version, which has bipartisan support, is expected to go up for a vote in September. That bill wouldn’t get new products on shelves this summer or even next, but it would mean consumers wouldn’t need to wait another fifteen years.

So by all means: go out and have some summer fun, but protect yourself. Use and reapply sunscreen, wear your hats and sunglasses, and make sure to get back in the shade whenever you can. Your life might depend on it.

The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer [Surgeon General’s Report]
Why the acting Surgeon General thinks skin cancer is a ‘major public health problem’ [Washington Post]
House Passes Bill to Speed FDA’s Sunscreen Approvals [Wall Street Journal]