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Media coverage of one death from melanoma helped spur on Australian legislation on sunbeds, but the groundwork had already been laid
Clare Oliver, aged 26, died in Melbourne from melanoma on 13 September 2007. This was just one of more than 1200 deaths related to melanoma that occur each year in Australia. However, in Clare’s last month of life she decided to publicise the dangers of sunbed use, which she blamed for her melanoma. A 10 minute segment on a current affairs programme on national television soon led to a media frenzy, with television news, daily newspapers, and talkback radio picking up the tragic story of this personable, dying young woman. After only two days of intense media exposure the state of Victoria’s health minister announced the need for legislation to control the use of sunbeds. A day later this was supported by the state premier and by the federal health minister and prime minister, who all stated the need for nationally uniform legislation. It seemed that Clare Oliver had achieved in a matter of days what others had been advocating for more than a decade.
The Clare Oliver story broke on 21 August 2007. A retrospective search by a media monitoring company for mentions in the following month generated more than 100 press articles and nearly 400 broadcast items nationwide. The story leant itself to media attention by virtue of the key protagonist, an attractive, articulate, and determined young woman, described by headlines as a crusader, campaigner, or fighter. The tone of the articles was overwhelmingly in favour of Clare’s “crusade” and encouraged public outrage at the cause of this “tragedy” rather than pity for its victim.
The timing and pace of the story were also ideal for maintaining media interest. Press headlines focused initially on the tragedy and the dangers of sunbed use, with taglines such as “A tan to die for” and “20 sessions in a sunbed . . . now I am dying.” When legislation was announced within days of the story going to air, this then took over the headlines, featuring in around a third of the total number for the month. Days later, Clare’s 26th birthday celebrations were an opportunity to keep the story in the public eye, but this was followed in less than two weeks by her death. More than half the headlines reporting her death referred to her “legacy,” thus refreshing the need for state and federal legislation. The media gave more attention to federal support for the legislation than to more concrete promises and timelines at state level. That the prime minister was trailing in the polls in the run up to the general election may have contributed to his willingness to speak out publicly on an emotive issue that comfortably avoided the key flashpoints of climate change, industrial relations, and the war in Iraq. In any case, headlines referred to him repeatedly, in the context of the initial demand for legislation and when he “paid tribute” to the “solarium campaigner” after her death. This undoubtedly strengthened and expanded to a national level a story that otherwise could have been limited to local interest.
A cynic might say that the Victorian government had merely been politically astute and saw an opportunity to respond to an issue that had engaged the attention of the public. However, the state government had, together with Cancer Council Victoria, been collecting data on sunbeds for more than 10 years, particularly in terms of compliance with the Australian standard for solaria, the sunbed industry’s voluntary code of practice.
Research undertaken by Cancer Council Victoria had shown that, contrary to the requirements of the standard, 50% of sunbed facilities allowed access to teenagers who were younger than 18 years without their parents’ permission and that 90% allowed access to adults with type 1 skin, which burns but does not tan.1 The Victorian government had also conducted its own research to measure compliance, with similar results, and had sent warning letters to operators and funded a campaign informing consumers about the dangers of sunbed use.
A regular summer sun survey in Victoria had shown an increasing desire for a tan among young people since the mid-1990s. Earlier in 2007 Cancer Council Victoria had published a study that mapped the growth of the sunbed industry over more than 10 years. The study showed an increase in listings in the yellow pages of sunbed facilities in Melbourne by more than 500% in the decade to 2006.2 Although the nature of the sunbed industry’s contribution to the increasing desire for a tan was uncertain, the growth of the industry was undeniable. The study findings generated substantial media interest, with 15 press articles and 196 broadcast items in the nine days after its publication. Responding to the story, the then health minister first raised the possibility of drafting legislation within the year.
Clare’s much publicised testimonial was the trigger the Victorian government needed to fast track legislation of the sunbed industry. Although at the time of writing the contents of the proposed legislation are still not clear, it is likely to follow World Health Organization guidelines3and will also require the licensing of all sunbed facility operators and their staff.
Within a month of the Clare Oliver story appearing in the media, Standards Australia had decided to bring forward a review of the current Australian standard for solaria to build in stronger requirements to protect the health of consumers. At the initial review meeting it was clear that the sunbed industry had experienced a serious blow to its business as a result of the story, with some operators having had a loss in income of as much as 75%. On the flip side, as a result of the media attack the industry had quickly realised it needed a more powerful united lobby group, similar to that in the United States, something it had never had in Australia.
The Clare Oliver story is a powerful example of one person’s achievement in enlisting the media to shape public health policy. However, as the case illustrates, although having a relevant and personal story to tell can be an important catalyst for policy change, it is also important that the evidence base for determining policy is in place, thus enabling stories like Clare’s to resonate, resulting in swift and appropriate action by governments.