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In an article published in the New York Times, reporter Christie Aschwanden exposes gross overstatements and misleading information contained in the American Cancer Society's latest public service campaign.
The campaign features a young woman holding a picture of a smiling young blond under a headline reading, "My sister accidentally killed herself. She died of skin cancer." This advertisement, funded by skin product manufacturer Neutrogena, advises readers to "use sunscreen, cover up and watch for skin changes." It can be seen in 15 top women's magazines this summer, with the warning that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer.
Doctors across the country are up in arms about the campaign's deceptive message and misrepresentation of the facts about skin cancer and UV light. Particularly offensive to health professionals is the ad's message that skin cancer victims are entirely responsible for their disease, which doctors point out is completely unsupported by evidence. In fact, skin cancer deaths represent less than 2% of all cancer deaths. The overwhelming majority of these deaths are due to melanoma, which represents only 6% of all cases of skin cancer.
Doctors and researchers alike stress that the link between sun exposure and melanoma is at best unclear. A study published in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2005 found that among people diagnosed with melanoma, those with histories of higher sun exposure throughout their lifetime actually had higher rates of survival than those with less sun exposure. Many Doctors, like Dr. Barry Kramer, associate director for disease prevention at the National Institutes of Health, point out that while there is fairly solid evidence that sun block can help to reduce incidences of non-melanoma skin cancer, "there's very little evidence that sunscreens protect you against melanoma, yet you often hear that as the dominant message."
In response, Dr. J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, defended the misleading statements by claiming that in order "to get the message to our target audience...some license in taking that message and using it the way we used it," was deemed necessary. In other words, in order to send the message that they -and Neutrogena, who financed the entire campaign- wanted to send, it was necessary to lie to the public.
Others expressed disapproval over the financial partnership between The American Cancer Society and Neutrogena, a division of Johnson & Johnson whose sunscreens feature the ACS logo on each bottle. Dr. Lisa Schwartz, co-director of the Outcomes Group at the Veterans Affairs hospital in White River Junction, VT explained that the campaign should "reflect the best evidence. We don't want people who have a financial interest to be telling you the benefit of doing something."

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