The Sun Scare: How it all started.
How did the sun-scare change the perception of the sun from good to bad, from live-giving to life-threatening?
This turnaround took a spectacular and sustained effort of black PR, motivated by the huge profits that were at stake for the cosmetics industry.
It all began back in 1979…
That was the year that L’Oréal and Nestlé (the second largest shareholder in L’Oréal) established the International Dermatological Research Centre (CIRD). Its mission: “to improve knowledge of the skin’s physiology and ageing process.”
This marked the start for the invention of the sun-scare as a way to expand the market for sun-protection cosmetics.
Recherché L’Oréal became the main vehicle in the first step of the sun-scare campaign: changing the common perception of sunshine from being good and healthy to something life-threatening.
Not long ago, scientists got the Nobel Prize for using sunlight to treat skin-diseases. Now, L’Oréal’s PR spin doctors got to work on the task of making sunlight appear dangerous to life. Their gigantic and sinister campaign message was delivered with religious zeal – and how they succeeded!
Their work achieved its ultimate successes when the World Health Organization (WHO) was actively encouraged by working groups (led by people on the payroll of L’Oréal) to classify, first sunshine (in 1992), and then solariums (in 2009), as “carcinogenic to humans”.
Despite being based on statistics that are deemed fraudulent by real experts, these classifications by the WHO are now used as key reference points in decisions and discussions about potential dangers from UV-light. This is probably the most successful PR stunt since Moses came down from his mountain carrying the Ten Commandments.
Profiting From The Sun-Scare
In 1981 L’Oréal and Nestlé went on to create Galderma, a company devoted to the worldwide development and marketing of dermatological remedies against skin, hair and nail complaints under the slogan “Committed to the future of dermatology.”
Did L’Oréal and Nestlé already see the potential of an increasing market due to skin-damage from over-protection against sunlight? Or was the creation of Galderma “just” a way to make more profit from the developing collaboration with dermatologists?
Whatever the reason, Galderma went on to huge success, selling more than 1.4 billion Euros worth of their products through dermatologists worldwide in 2011. Much of this sum was paid for by taxpayers like you and me through public healthcare and health insurance contributions.
Galderma has also become an important vehicle for funding sun-scare related research. They are doing so through seemingly innocent organisations like the “Dermatology Foundation” in the USA.
Of course the main purpose of L’Oréal’s sponsoring of skin-cancer research is not to find a cure for skin-cancer. That would be like killing the goose laying the golden eggs. The real reason is to sell more of their products and increase their profits. Since they knew that sunshine (and especially its UV-components) is a better cure for all skin diseases than any of their expensive manmade products, they had to change the prevailing (at that time) perception of sunshine as being something healthy.
The sales by Galderma are however like a drop in the ocean compared to the much larger profits to be made from increased sales of sun-protection cosmetics.
In 1982, Recherché L’Oréal patented Mexoryl SX, “an ultra-powerful anti-UVA, that revolutionises sun protection.”
Soon, almost all of L’Oréal’s cosmetic products were to contain sun-protecting chemicals. And sun protection was being used as the main sales argument in order to encourage more customers to buy and use more cosmetics.
The anti-sunshine campaign undoubtedly contributed significantly to L’Oréal’s 2011 net profit of more than 2.5 billion Euros from worldwide sales of more than 20.4 billion Euros.
It is interesting to note that L’Oréal’s scientists seemingly already knew in 1982 (taking into account their patent as described above) that exposure to the UVA component in sunlight was more damaging than exposure to UVB. It was, however, UVB (the rays that gives us Vitamin D), that was to be presented as the main threat in the sun-scare campaign.
And why was that so?
It was probably because no natural occurrence could be found that might be used as a motivation for an increased threat from UVA. There was, however, a very useful event coinciding with the start of sun-scare, namely the public warnings about a thinning ozone layer.
The ozone layer filters only UVB, while it has hardly any influence on UVA. A supposedly thinning ozone layer was therefore heavily used in the very successful inauguration of sun-scare in Australia. Sunshine suddenly became much more dangerous in the minds of the Australian public.
Creating the Numbers Behind the Sun-Scare
Having found a plausible (albeit, as it turned out, not sustainable) reason for increased incidence of skin cancers, the next task was to create the statistics that could back up the claims that sunshine really had become an enemy to humanity.
The problem with this however was that the mortality rate for melanoma (the most deadly of all skin diseases) did not provide enough proof of any new danger from sunshine. The line for melanoma mortality in each country’s official statistics was, and remains, consistently horizontal. And with melanoma steadily placed somewhere between 15th and 20th place among the most deadly cancers, this was nowhere near frightening enough.
So what did the spin doctors of L’Oréal’s black PR campaign do? They invented new kinds of skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and trained their dermatologists in the possibility of diagnosing even the most innocent of skin lesions as “skin cancer”.
Due to the widespread diagnosis of BCC and SCC in individual dermatologists’ reception rooms, non-melanoma skin cancers are not included in any country’s official cancer registry.
So where have the headline-grabbing statistics pointing to a “skin-cancer epidemic” come from?
In most cases they come from “Health Maintenance Organizations” which, in the USA, are: “organizations that provide or arrange managed care for health insurance, self-funded health care benefit plans, individuals and other entities in the United States as a liaison with health care providers (hospitals, doctors, etc.) on a prepaid basis.”
So here we have the set-up of dermatologists being trained (and encouraged by organisations established by L’Oréal) to find more and more cases of “skin-cancers”. They then report the incidence of non-melanoma skin-cancers to the health insurance system in order to claim for the costs of treating their patients from insurance companies or public health care.
The statistics thus created are then spun into press releases spiced with horror stories from “skin-cancer survivors” about how they got their “cancer” from tanning beds.
This was all done with the sole purpose of scaring more people into using more sun-protection cosmetics – with the lucrative little side effect coming from Galderma’s 1.4 billion sales of medications to all those new “skin-cancer” patients.
The encouragement of dermatologists and primary care practitioners to discover more and more melanoma has also lead to a steep increase in the number of reported melanoma cases. Prof. Earl J. Glusac describes in his report “The melanoma ‘epidemic’, a dermatopathologist’s perspective”, how the number of malignant (i.e. “thick”) melanoma has stayed more or less constant throughout history and the increase is only in benign (i.e. “thin”) melanoma. Prof. Glusac’s report from December 2010 is well worth reading for any journalist who want to do some serious research into the origin of sun-scare. It can be bought (for 35 US$) and downloaded from this site. It does, however, not give the real reasons for the “over-diagnosis” of melanoma.
The report from prof. Glusac, includes references to earlier reports on the subject of a false melanoma epidemic and on the hidden costs of the over-diagnosis. Here is a citation from the report that tells a, unfortunately not too uncommon, story of personal tragedy …
“I believe that the most important consequences are hidden. They do not become apparent unless one has a family member or friend who has an ‘overdiagnosed’ lesion or until an affected patient’s story
is reported in the media. One such story, ‘Doctors Question Rise in Skin Cancer Biopsies’ (National Public Radio, Morning Edition, May 3, 2007), highlighted the plight of patient Chrys Uicker. At the time of receiving a diagnosis of cutaneousmelanoma, she was 33 years of age and a mother of one. As a result of her diagnosis, Mrs Uicker made many changes in her life. She avoided the sun. She had many melanocytic nevi excised and then re-excised because they were called atypical. She experienced significant anxiety and symptoms of depression. She was told by her doctor to have no more children.
Her words highlight a hidden cost of the melanoma ‘epidemic’: ‘. . . all the dreams I had built of having more than one child seemed suddenly impossible . . . then on top of that was this fear that now I have this wonderful little girl . . . and I am probably going to die, and she is going to be alone.’ As the story progresses, Mrs Uicker’s dermatologist subsequently obtained a second opinion from an expert, a dermatopathologist, who identified the lesion as a melanocytic nevus and not melanoma.”
The Sun-Scare has a history and a dynamic that keeps it going in the interests of those who profit from it. Once we understand these powerful vested interests, we can challenge the Sun-Scare and see it for what it really is: a deeply cynical lie that causes more skin damage than it actually prevents.
Figure 1: The “statistically impossible” relationship between diagnosed and mortal cases of melanoma in USA 1975-2009