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Senator Pressures FDA to Finish Long-Awaited Sunscreen Label Rules

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Sen. Jack Reed responds to a question at the Reuters Future Face of Finance Summit in Washington March 1.Reuters

Sen. Jack Reed wants federal regulators to get off the beach and finally set new rules for sunscreen labels, pushing a bill that would force the Food and Drug Administration to implement a proposal that's been sitting around for years.

The Rhode Island senator wants sunscreen makers to be held to a higher standard, complaining that while the companies are required to slap a sun protection factor (SPF) label on their products they do not have to tell consumers about protection from UVA rays -- which can damage skin and increase risk of skin cancer. The current SPF labels refer to another kind of ultraviolet light known as UVB, responsible for sunburns. 

"They're getting protection from getting burned, but they're not getting protection from skin cancer," Reed spokesman Chip Unruh said. 

The FDA has been reviewing its regulations for decades and issued a proposed rule in 2007. That regulation would set up a four-star rating system to tell consumers how much UVA protection each product provides, with four stars representing the most protection. Under the plan, the FDA would conduct two tests to determine the rating and affix a new warning label -- the label would explain to consumers that they should also limit time in the sun and wear protective clothing to reduce the risk of skin cancer and skin damage. 

But so far, the FDA has not finalized the rule. 

Reed's bill, introduced last week and co-sponsored by five other senators, would force the FDA to either implement its proposed rule or issue a similar one within 180 days. 

This isn't the first time he's introduced such a bill. According to Reed's office, the senator has unsuccessfully tried to compel the FDA to act two other times since 2008. 

The FDA claims it's making progress regardless of the legislative effort. 

"We hope to publish (the rule) soon. ... very, very soon," spokeswoman Shelly Burgess said.

The FDA expressed similar optimism last year. In a July 2010 letter to Reed, an FDA official said the agency was "making every effort" to finish up by October 2010. 

But Burgess said the reason it's taken so long to finalize is because the FDA received more than 3,000 comments since 2007 -- far more than a typical proposal would generate. 

"It takes time to go through the data," she said. Burgess also said the industry is cooperating. 

Reed called on the FDA to swiftly issue its decision. 

"We've come a long way in preventing and treating skin cancer and now the FDA itself needs to take action," Reed said in a written statement. "They can do that by ensuring consumers have the information they need to protect themselves." 

Reed pointed to a recent report from the Environmental Working Group that claimed just one in five sunscreens was "safe and effective." 

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the country. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, cases of melanoma -- the most fatal form of the disease -- increased 45 percent from 1992 to 2004.