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The Daily Tar Heel

From the `Lights Out' Convention

Representatives from 32 states met at the 16th annual Lights Out Convention at Sun City's underground resort in Sunnyside, Calif. They discussed plans, among them a "sunlight tax," to reduce Americans' exposure to deadly rays, which over time may cause skin irritations and cancers.

Skin cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. In the last decade the aggregate costs of fighting the disease have soared into the billions.

Harvey Cloudensky, who oversaw the AARS' (American Association for Responsible Sunning) six-year, $60 million advertising campaign, says efforts thus far to stem the tide of beachgoers and other sunners has fallen short.

"There is a gap between what society perceives as healthy and what actually is healthy," Cloudensky says. "The image of the bronze muscle man or beach bombshell is hard to shake."

Cloudensky blames the media the for furthering the notion that "tan is good" by the way it portrays "so-called beautiful people. If you look at shows like Baywatch, or even the nightly news, you'll see the actors and the news anchors are all tan. Americans need to learn that if you're not black, the paler you are the better."

Some activists point to a conspiracy between drug makers and politicians.

"They want us to be out in the sun," one said. "They want to make us buy sun block, and if we don't, then we burn. Then they sell us their treatments, and politicians refuse to look at the problem because drug makers and physicians are paying them off."

Everyone at the convention seemed to agree that something must be done about the problem.

Sen. Bob Boilskin of Arizona knows firsthand of the risks of overexposure. Just last year he had several cancerous growths removed from his face and neck.

"Luckily, the cancer hasn't spread," Boilskin grinned. He added, "But seriously, that's the trouble with this disease. Once you've been exposed it's about numbers, about luck."

And, lawmakers say, when it comes to skin cancer, Americans are unlucky to the extent that legislation may be required to protect them.

Richard Lightman, chairman of the committee that sponsors the event, pointed to legislation already in place inhibiting the use of products such as cigarettes and intoxicating liquors.

"We want to draw an analogy between the harmful effects of sunlight and the harmful effects of alcohol and cigarette consumption." The logistics of taxing sunlight, or limiting exposure, Lightman noted, would be challenging. "But," he argued, "that doesn't diminish the importance of our gathering. We want to protect people."

Legislative protection against the harms resulting from smoking and drinking, protection that limits individual consumption through statutes, taxes or warnings, has been in effect for years.

Legal actions against tobacco makers commenced when it was found that producers had purposefully inserted addictive chemicals into cigarettes of which the public was unaware.

Conventiongoers say the deception here is less direct. "Here you have society telling you something is good," said activist Daniel Blackmole. "But really it is harmful. People don't know the facts, and we want to get them out there."

Some have suggested setting up tax booths, where residents could deposit a quarter for every hour spent in the sunlight, beginning on an honor system until a viable enforcement regime can be developed.

Others propose equipping passageways that lead out-of-doors with permanent hologram-like warnings that flash on and off as a person steps through. Technology giant SunCom has offered to develop a trial line of hologram machines if the federal government will fund the project.

AARS members stressed the importance of the message. "It isn't necessarily about laws, though they may help," said member Ruth Sunnyday. "Right now we need to inform the public, let the public decide for itself what it needs to do."

That raises the touchy issue of individual rights, the battle cry for protesters who picketed above ground throughout the convention.

"We don't need to be protected from ourselves!" one protester exclaimed. "They make us wear seatbelts because, they say, it's for our own good. But it's not about our safety!"

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"It's about money," another chimed in. "It's usually lower-income people who can't pay the bills when they get in accidents, so we got to pay through taxes. It makes sense: Make them wear seatbelts to reduce the costs. But what about rights? What if we don't want to wear a seatbelt? Why do we have to wear a seatbelt just because we were born in this society?"

Similarly, protesters say, if a person wishes to spend time in the sun, enough time to burn, then a person should be able to make that decision.

"It is not the function of our government to tell us how to lead our lives," one added.

Yet, Cloudensky responds, "We're already controlled, whether we like it or not. Our thoughts, our opinions are controlled by the television screen. What it tells us is tan is good, tan is healthy. All we are trying to say is people are wrong about that and wrong for continuing to promote that message."

Yes, he made it up. Paul Tharp is a first-year law student. Reach him with any questions or comments at ptharp@email.unc.edu.

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