Amy Callaghan: ‘Ministers must scrap tax on sunscreen — lives literally depend on it’

Twelve years ago, I received a shock cancer diagnosis. I was one of the 17,000 people diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer each year across the UK. Gruelling surgeries followed, only for the cancer to return two years later and although it might not sound like it, I was one of the lucky ones. I have been cancer free for a long time, almost ten years. A milestone that felt unattainable as a teen following diagnosis.

Now, as an MP, I am running the VAT Burn campaign – calling on the UK government to remove VAT from sunscreen. Let me explain why.

We must do this because far too many families endure much worse than I did. Over 2,300 lives are cut short by melanoma in the UK each year. That figure, like the number being diagnosed, is increasing dramatically and has more than doubled since the early 1990s. Behind each number is a father, mother, son, or daughter, a family in despair and facing weeks, months, and years of anxiety. The human cost of melanoma is far too high. So, too, is the increasing financial burden on our NHS.

I paint a bleak picture, but unlike most cancers, melanoma is almost entirely preventable. Nearly 90 percent of cases could be avoided by staying safe in the sun, including wearing sunscreen. This gives us hope.

These are thousands of lives that could be saved by a simple behaviour change. It sounds easy – we just need to encourage more people to regularly wear sunscreen. To do that, we first need to understand why people in the UK don’t wear sunscreen. Is it because people don’t see a need due to the dreich weather? Is it because many people in the UK want a bit of colour added to their fairer skin? Or perhaps there are other reasons.

Leading skin cancer charity, Melanoma Focus, conducted research to find out. They discovered that the cost of sunscreen is a major barrier, with 67 percent of people saying they would wear it more if sunscreen was 20 percent cheaper.

So, you see why I launched the VAT Burn campaign. As well as calling for VAT to be removed from sunscreen, I want to see a national awareness campaign to encourage people to stay safe in the sun. These are clear, tangible, and simple actions we must take to save countless lives.

Cancer charities were quick to back the campaign, and our recent letter to the Prime Minister received significant support from medical professionals, melanoma patients and survivors, and MPs from every major UK political party. We all believe action must be taken now, but sadly our view has not been shared by the UK government.

The same tired excuses are trotted out by Whitehall every time I raise the issue in the Commons. Ministers claim sunscreen is already available on prescription for people with specific medical conditions, and wilfully ignore the fact this provision is extremely limited and does not even include melanoma patients. It’s not there as the preventative it’s supposed to be.

As lives hang in the balance, ministers dither over technicalities. Although, there is one objection from the Treasury that is worth giving more serious consideration. That is the argument there is no way to ensure VAT cuts result in a reduced price for consumers, with the risk retailers swallow the additional profits. However, there are two flaws to this reasoning.

First, if VAT reductions are not passed on to consumers, why did the UK government remove VAT from sanitary products and why was that policy extended in the recent Autumn Statement to include reusable period pants? If period products warranted action to make them more affordable, why does the same logic not apply to melanoma prevention? Is slashing thousands of avoidable cancer deaths not sufficient rationale?

Second, while there is a mixed picture about the success of removing sales taxes from specific products in Europe, there are three examples from further afield that illustrate how we could remove VAT from sunscreen and, as a result, bring down the cost for consumers. In Australia, Malaysia, and India, each government accompanied the removal of sales taxes with anti-profiteering measures.

This leaves us with three clear components to overcome the financial barriers to regular sunscreen use. First, the UK government must introduce legislation to zero rate any product primarily marketed for sun protection of SPF 30 and above. These are essential healthcare items, not luxury goods as the VAT implies. Second, new powers must be given to a body like the Competition and Markets Authority to guarantee retailers forward savings to consumers through hefty penalties if needed. And third, the UK government must launch a public awareness campaign, like the successful Australian ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’, so people understand how to reduce the risks associated with sun exposure.

The VAT Burn campaign will continue pressuring the UK government, gathering supporters, and raising awareness. But the power to save lives lies in ministers’ hands.

I cannot begin to imagine the grief and anger of losing a parent, son, or daughter when it could have been avoided – when the government could have made a simple, relatively inexpensive, policy change.

The VAT Burn campaign has shown there is a need. It has shown there is a way. Now we need to see a bit of willingness from UK ministers. Lives literally depend on it. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.