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Keywords:

  • basal cell carcinoma;
  • melanoma;
  • prevention;
  • squamous cell carcinoma

Incidence and mortality rates due to skin cancer are rising in most Western countries. Early detection of these tumours at a stage when they can be easily cured is the primary approach taken by many people wishing to deal with the problem. A primary prevention approach, that is, reduction in sunlight exposure, is being considered by an increasing number of organizations. The public health approach to primary prevention of skin cancer, including melanoma, requires an understanding of the role of sunlight in the production of these tumours. Despite a clear understanding of exactly how sunlight does this, there is enough epidemiological and laboratory evidence to suggest a broad approach to the problem. This includes reduction of sunlight exposure, particularly in childhood and adolescence. It also suggests the need to recommend avoidance of suntanning and particularly the excessive exposures that lead to sunburn. Widespread primary prevention public health programmes have been running in Australia for almost 20 years. The data measuring the effect of these programmes indicate a very large shift in knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about sunlight exposure and suntans, and major shifts in behaviour. Suntans are no longer as popular as they were and people are reducing their sunlight exposure by a variety of methods encapsulated in Slip! Slop! Slap! Cohort analysis of the incidence rates for melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer show that the incidence of these tumours is levelling out in young people and is dropping in some instances. These are the people who were able to be influenced by the public health programmes in recent decades. Finally, following initial dramatic changes in all the behavioural variables related to the programme, a period of consolidation with continuing effort and more specific targeting will be required in the coming decades to maintain the improvement.