The Times recently carried an article about new things we can expect the Nanny State to ban in the near future. Included in the list was a ban on "teens using tanning beds". Encouraged buy the World Health Organisation, one politician in Scotland has already introduced legislation to ban tanning beds. The Times claimed "An estimated 100 people die in Scotland each year of skin cancers caused by the use of sunbeds."
No source is given for this claim. In fact the total number of skin cancer deaths in Scotland for individuals of all ages, from all causes, is 158. This would require two-thirds of all skin cancer deaths to be caused by tanning beds, which is hardly likely. Most people with skin cancer are the elderly, who don't use tanning beds.
The truth is that most of these people have skin cancer because of decades of exposure to the sun. The Skin Cancer Foundation says that more than 90% of all skin cancer is caused "by sun exposure" - not tanning beds.
Thus are rumours born - and many of the populist health issues that drive legislation and regulation in this country.
Back in 2004 the Telegraph asked "Have we become too scared of the sun?"
It's answer was "Sunburn should be avoided, but new research suggests that excessive caution could starve our bodies of essential vitamin D".
The article went on to explain that not so long ago, most people walked every day - not to get fit, but to get some fresh air and feel the warmth of the sun on their faces. Babies were left in the garden in their prams to sleep or were pushed round the park.
In our climate, regular exposure to sunlight is critical to the strength and renewal of bones. UVA, the ultraviolet rays that redden and, ultimately, burn the skin, turn a precursor of vitamin D in the skin into a form that can "hitch a lift" around the bloodstream. In the kidneys, it is converted into the physiologically active form. The sunshine vitamin is essential for proper absorption of calcium, a bone-building block, and works in concert with other minerals and vitamins to mineralise bone. For children and adolescents, it is crucial to development. In adults, it helps to prevent our bones from going soft, and counteracts the effects of osteoporosis.
Although calcium is available in food, it is difficult to get enough this way. For the vast majority of people, the best source is sunlight. However, we are now aware of the dangers of excessive sun exposure, and, in particular, the risk of life-threatening skin melanoma - deaths rose by 25 per cent in the five years from 1995. The Government-backed "SunSmart" campaign aims to get this bleak message across and to encourage people to slap on high factor sun cream.
However in a recent report, "Sunlight Robbery", medical researcher Oliver Gillie says SunSmart is based on the assumption that conditions in Britain are similar to those in Australia, and that by thinking we need to cover up at the first sight of sun, wearing hats and sitting in the shade coated in high-factor sunscreen, we are putting ourselves at risk of vitamin D deficiency.
One survey suggests that as many as one in four people now do not have the required level of the vitamin in their blood. Inadequate levels of vitamin D put babies at risk of developing rickets, a Victorian disease suffered by deprived children. Two years ago a disturbing report charted the re-emergence of rickets in the Midlands, mainly among those with dark skins, which take longer for UVA rays to reach the vitamin D precursor.
Gillie's report draws together a large number of studies to show that for heart disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and other chronic conditions, sunlight and vitamin D are more essential than previously supposed. He would like to see the draconian advice about covering up replaced with a sensible sunbathing approach. "Take every opportunity to sunbathe, wearing as few clothes as possible, for up to half an hour or more per day," he says, "but don't let yourself burn either."
The GOS says: Very satisfactory. Don't you just love it when these scientists start squabbling among themselves? If only they could be encouraged to do it more often, they wouldn't have time to keep telling us how to lead our lives.
Personally I blame the newspapers, who flatter them by taking them seriously and making them feel important, just to get a sensational headline. I'm thinking of issuing a scientific report myself, suggesting that reading the Daily Mail every day can be fatal.
I know several old people who took this newspaper, and they all died. How much more evidence do you need?
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Copyright © 2007 The GOS
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