On 9 February 2023, MPs debated a “common sense” proposal backed by cross-party MPs, Melanoma Focus and other cancer charities to abolish VAT on sunscreen products and initiate a public health campaign about the risks of not using sunscreen (the full debate is available to watch here).
Amy Callaghan MP, who led the debate, explained:
“Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, killing 2,300 people each year. It receives only a fraction of the political attention it deserves, especially when we consider that 90% of cases are preventable with adequate skin protection – that is more than 2,000 lives we could save each year. In recent years, both melanoma and non-melanoma cancers have been on the rise across the UK…With the support of several organisations and Members across the House, my VAT Burn campaign seeks to reform the value added tax charged on sunscreen products of SPF 30 and above – products deemed by the NHS to provide significant enough coverage to our skin if applied correctly. Removing VAT from sunscreen is not a radical idea; in fact, when asked, most people are surprised, if not shocked, that VAT is charged on sunscreen. It is not a novel idea; both the US and Australia have made sunscreen exempt from VAT-style taxes.”
Callaghan went on to say that:
“We should not stop there. As in Australia, removing VAT from sunscreen should go hand in hand with an awareness campaign. The Australian ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ campaign was a huge success, and there is no reason why something similar could not be replicated in the UK.”
Former Health minister Maggie Throup MP then spoke movingly about her own experiences with melanoma and how preventing it will save both lives and money:
“‘It won’t happen to me’—that is what we all think. But then it does. It happened to me. Back in 2019, I noticed a blemish on my left arm. Knowing that both my parents had benign skin cancer, I decided to get it checked out. After a biopsy, my blemish was diagnosed as melanoma and I underwent surgery to remove the cancer. I was one of the lucky ones…[the Government] can remove VAT from sunscreen. We need to remove every possible barrier that could stand in the way of people buying a life-saving product. At the same time, such a measure sends out the message that the Government are serious about tackling all types of cancer. From an economic perspective, a healthy workforce is a productive workforce. The cost to the NHS of not taking action against a preventable cancer must be huge. We need to break down the silos in the NHS, between the NHS and the Treasury, and between all Government Departments, and look at the cost of not removing VAT on such a product.”
Shadow Treasury minister James Murray MP spoke on behalf of the Opposition, noting that while sun protection measures had often been associated with travel to warmer climates, “the past year has demonstrated how susceptible we are to heatwaves and the intense periods of direct sunlight they can bring to the UK.” While the Government has noted that people with certain conditions are able to access sunscreen on prescription, Murray asked the Government to provide figures on how many people are accessing this and whether they are facing waits to speak to a GP if they cannot get a repeat prescription. He also asked if the Government is working with manufacturers and retailers on how to reduce costs on sunscreen products.
Responding for the Government, Treasury minister Victoria Atkins committed to asking the relevant Health minister about an awareness campaign and to publishing figures on how many people are able to access sunscreen on prescription. However, she reiterated that the Government otherwise treats sunscreen as an “over the counter” product and VAT represents £157bn of revenue, so there are no plans to abolish VAT on sunscreen at this time. Patricia Gibson MP asked if Atkins would be able to estimate the cost of an exemption to the Treasury, while Jim Shannon MP joined Maggie Throup in asking Atkins to review the cost to the NHS of not preventing melanoma, suggesting “there is a cost to the NHS every year and that has to be part of the mathematics of the process.”
Amy Callaghan concluded her remarks by saying this is “just the beginning” of the campaign to abolish VAT on sunscreen and that she plans to introduce a Ten Minute Rule Bill in Parliament on February 23rd.
Following the debate, Melanoma Focus is calling for clarity from the Government. Susanna Daniels, chief executive of Melanoma Focus, said: “We thank the MPs who spoke in Thursday’s debate, including those who shared personal experiences that they or members of their staff have had with melanoma. Wearing sunscreen is an essential health protection measure, and should not be seen as a luxury item. 86% of cases can be prevented by adopting simple sun protection measures, including wearing factor 30+ sunscreen, but it must be affordable to people.
“We welcome the Treasury minister’s commitment to write to her colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care about the need for an Australian-style ‘Slip, Slap, Slop’ campaign to normalise the use of sunscreen. But we reiterate the point made by MPs on Thursday that this campaign will be needed very soon, as people begin to plan their Easter and summer holidays and before temperatures once again rise.
“Lastly, we echo the call for a Government review of how much reducing the skin cancer burden on the NHS will save the public purse and of how many people are able to access sunscreen on prescription, alongside the short-term cost to the Treasury of removing VAT. Wearing sunscreen should be viewed as a simple, preventative measure and made available to as many people as possible.”
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