It’s the slow-news, silly season, it’s summer…and it’s the perfect time for pitching advertising dressed up as news, especially if it involves scare stories about sunscreens.

And so we have suffered a rash of “news” stories this week in which Perth toxicologist Peter Dingle sounds a loud alarm about nasty chemicals in sunscreens.

He appeared yesterday on Sunrise and ABC Radio’s The World Today. It is no surprise that in these interviews he stresses the availability of safer products.

What is surprising is that his interviewers didn’t pick up on the hint. Surely the obvious questions to then ask would have been: do you have an interest in promoting these other products or in attacking their competitors?

It’s a shame the question wasn’t asked – or if it was, we in the audience didn’t get to hear it – because it would have been interesting to hear Dingle’s response on air.

I rang him this morning to ask about his involvement with a Perth-based company called Skin Elements that is promoting a range of “natural” sunscreens, Soléo Organics.

According to this presentation, the launch plan for these products, starting in October 2008, includes a national PR and advertising campaign featuring Dr Peter Dingle (see pp 10 and 16). He also features in this 2006 article issued by Skin Elements sounding the alarm about sunscreen safety.

When I asked Dingle about his relationship with Skin Elements, he said: “I’ve met with them probably half a dozen times over the last couple of years to get updates.” They were not responsible for his latest media appearances, he said, which he had generated himself via a press release.

He said he did not know that he’d been mentioned in the document about the company’s marketing plan.

He also said he did not have any financial interest in related companies. He stressed that he had been campaigning against toxic chemicals for 20 years, and mentioned his book, Dangerous Beauty, about beauty products he considers harmful, including sunscreens.

There’s the rub. Dingle may not be selling sunscreens (at least not directly), but he is most definitely selling product. He is invariably described in media reports as an associate professor at Murdoch University, but when you look at his personal website, it’s clear that he’s also an enthusiastic promoter of his books and his services as a public speaker and media commentator.

A brief extract: “In Perth demand for Dr D is so high he may present up to 6 times a week. He is popular internationally for his lively presentations and has presented in 11 countries on 4 continents. Dr D has made public speaking an art. His presentations are enthusiastic and inspirational, entwined with memorable stories and spiced with a slice of magic. He interacts and motivates. He takes complex scientific information and converts it so that it is dynamic, easy to understand and informative.

Dr D is a professional member of the Australian Speaker’s Association and a member of the Western Australian Society of Magicians. He is also a group hypnotherapist and motivational coach to some of Australia’s elite junior athletes and business people. In his spare time he practices what he preaches, rides a bicycle to work, loves his family, the beach and the gym, juggles, meditates, plays with a unicycle and cooks a mean minestra (but not all at the same time!)

None of this is to suggest that there is no room for stories questioning the basis of sunscreen messages – or any public health messages for that matter.

Investigation and inquiry are healthy. But if we’re going to start asking questions, then let’s not forget the very basic ones. You know, the ones like, why is this person going public on this issue now?

Asking this sort of question often kills the story. Which is exactly why it should be asked.

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