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Advocates Fight to Stop Sunset of Skin Cancer Program

To mark National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, a group dedicated to educating schoolchildren about the hazards of too much sun exposure will hold a reception Wednesday to honor winners of its annual poster contest.

The SHADE Foundation runs the competition in partnership with the EPA’s SunWise program, a popular skin cancer eduction outreach initiative that provides resources to schools and educational organizations. The poster contest promotes a key tenet of the SunWise philosophy: A little bit of time spent addressing the issue in school every year can yield measurable changes in children’s sun-protection behavior.

But if President Barack Obama’s budget recommendation is followed, this will be the last time SunWise co-sponsors the poster contest. The administration has proposed cutting the program to save the annual $1 million appropriation.

By many measures, SunWise is a cost-effective success story. A study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2008 concluded that every dollar spent on SunWise saves an estimated $2 to $4 in medical costs. Funding the program through fiscal 2015, the survey found, would prevent more than 50 premature deaths and 11,000 skin cancer cases.

Since the program launched in 2000, more than 31,000 schools and 5,700 organizations nationwide have taught the curriculum, according to the agency.

In 2005, Arizona became the first state to require that SunWise be taught in all public schools before ninth grade, and the Utah Legislature passed a resolution in 2006 encouraging schools to educate children about the risks of sun exposure.

Despite its popularity, critics say the program duplicates other federal efforts and is not part of the EPA’s core mission. The agency says the effort no longer requires federal taxpayer support.

“It’s a mature program where existing lesson plans and local capacity, resulting from years of federal government investment, can continue educating about the harmful effects of overexposure to the sun without continued federal funding,” the agency said in an email.

House appropriator Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican and a champion of efforts to combat skin cancer, is slated to be the keynote speaker at the SHADE Foundation poster contest event. Dent said the program has remained popular among lawmakers in the face of earlier efforts to cut it, and he expressed confidence that the program could be preserved, despite the current austerity mood in Congress.

“I think there’s a good chance because we’re talking about an amount of money that I think would be easier to restore than some other line items,” Dent said. “This is clearly a more manageable program — an easier ask — than some others.”

John Antonishak, executive director of the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention, said SunWise is “almost annually” targeted for significant cuts or outright termination.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., singled out SunWise for termination in a 2011 deficit-reduction plan he developed.

“Despite many challenges threatening our natural environment from pollution, the EPA has dedicated significant resources to SunWise,” Coburn said, urging that the program should be consolidated with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention efforts and the National Weather Service’s ultraviolet index reporting.

Tim Turnham, executive director of the Melanoma Research Foundation, said those government agencies are already dealing with tight budgets of their own. He said the federal government lacks another “solid, comprehensive program” to educate children about the dangers of UV ray exposure.

“We are dealing with a situation that is rising to epidemic rate,” Turnham said, referring to melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, according to the CDC, with the number of melanoma cases rising by almost 2 percent a year between 2000 and 2009.

The American Academy of Dermatology reports that more than 3.5 million skin cancers in more than 2 million people are diagnosed annually in the United States.

SunWise provides schools and partners with a tool kit that includes more than 50 standards-based cross-curricular activities, a UV-sensitive Frisbee for experiments and books and posters. The program is designed to fit seamlessly into a school’s curriculum.

After participation in the program, sunburn rates fell and more students knew the right sun protection factor number of sunscreen to wear, according to surveys. The surveys also showed that fewer children who participated in the program thought people look healthier with a suntan.

While the EPA says the effort no longer needs federal support, advocates worry that the gains will erode if SunWise goes away.

For example, the Arizona law that requires SunWise to be taught in all public schools only mandates the training if the EPA program remains free to schools.

Antonishak said supporters have fended off earlier efforts to get rid of SunWise and his group has written to the top EPA appropriators in both chambers, urging them to reject the administration’s proposal to kill the program.

Despite past victories, Antonishak said the outlook this fiscal year “seems more grim than ever before,” given the austere cuts required by the sequester.

“The EPA SunWise program isn’t unique from being scrutinized by all eyes,” Antonishak said.

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