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Changing the culture of sun safety

There’s something very shady about Sun Safe Nova Scotia. The coalition, coordinated by Cancer Care Nova Scotia, was formed six years ago. As a result, Nova Scotians are are better informed about sun safety and the importance of protecting their skin.

“I was intrigued that such a diverse group of people would come together over a common goal – helping to prevent and detect skin cancer. It’s quite amazing what they’ve managed to accomplish,” says Dr. Laura Finlayson, Chief of the Division of Dermatology at Capital Health, who until recently chaired Sun Safe Nova Scotia. 

Under her leadership, a recent evaluation of the coalition, which includes representatives from government, health care, child care, and recreation, found that the group has made significant progress. “Efforts focus on creating environments that support sun safety. Over time, this will help to create a cultural shift in how we think about tanning. Practicing sun safety will become the norm in Nova Scotia and that will impact on skin cancer rates down the road,” explains Ms. Judy Purcell, CCNS Prevention Coordinator.

Among the many activities that Sun Safe Nova Scotia has undertaken is the development of the comprehensive Summer Sun Safety – A How to Guide for Recreation and Sport Programs, which even includes many supports such as information on conducting shade audits to identify areas that can be enhanced by the creation of additional shade.

“Twelve municipal recreation programs have now adopted sun-safety policies and 16 are displaying sun safety signage in outdoor recreational areas,” says Judy. “Just think about how many Nova Scotia children attend summer camps and participate in summer sport groups. There is tremendous potential to educate, role-model and support sun safety practices in these programs.”

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Sun safety is also on the minds – and in the preparations – of licensed child care centres across Nova Scotia. A tip of the hat to the Department of Community Services, a member of the Sun Safe Nova Scotia coalition, for bringing this issue to the forefront within their sector and adopting sun safety practice as part of their provincial Daily Program Policy.

Pharmacists are also actively involved – via a speakers’ bureau launched by Sun Safe Nova Scotia – that brings them face to face with members of the community to discuss the importance of early detection and inform about the signs and symptoms of skin cancer and how to find it early.

There is growing recogntion that we must address the tanning issue with youth and young adults. Sun Safe Nova Scotia is in the process of creating tools to support Youth Health Centres to develop and implement Tan-Free Graduation programs in their school communities. The tool kit will provide factual information, resources and activities to increase knowledge and begin to shift youth attitudes about tanning behaviour, including behaviours regarding artificial tanning.

“We need to address the myths about tans and tanning,” notes Guysborough Youth Health and Services Centre Coordinator Ms. Leona Purcell. “There is a lot of misinformation out there, particularly about tanning beds. Nova Scotia youth need to understand that tanning beds are not safe.

This is an issue Sun Safe Nova Scotia has been investigating, and now Doctors Nova Scotia has developed a strong position statement calling for government controls on the industry generally, but with a particular focus on prohibiting use by youth.

“Legislation  is the first step to protecting the province’s youth but we also need to make sure that it’s enforced,” said Dr. Jane Brooks, President of Doctors Nova Scotia. “With one of the highest rates of melanoma in the country we need to take the necessary steps to reduce the rates of incidence. If youth are unable to develop dangerous habits then perhaps they’ll be more likely to make sun safe decisions in adulthood.”

“There is no doubt these tanning beds are not healthy,” says Dr. Finlayson. “As physicians, we treat large numbers of patients with skin cancers, pre-cancerous spots and premature aging.  Any factors that will help prevent these conditions are essential, and protection from ultraviolet radiation, from both natural and artificial sources is key."

The risk is significant. “The International Agency for Research on Cancer has rated UV from tanning bed the same level carcinogen as tobacco,” says Leona. “We should have warning labels on the tanning beds like we do on cigarette packages.”

“Public policy that supports health and reduces risk is a key element of creating supportive environments for healthy behaviours, says Judy. “Changing social norms like tanning will need to be supported through public policy. The Sun Safe Nova Scotia coalition will continue to work towards that end.”

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