Sir Kenneth Calman, chief medical officer, said most people knew about the risks of sunbathing but were ignoring them. A survey of 2,000 people published yesterday showed a third of men and half of women had tried to get a tan in the last year. "We are trying to persuade people not to rush out at the first hint of sunshine to acquire a suntan," he said.
Since health warnings have fallen on deaf ears, the Government is turning to the image makers. A glossy publication entitled Sunconscious: Fashion and Beauty - The New Testament, produced by the Health Education Authority, is being distributed to women's magazines, model agencies and fashion colleges with the claim that images of models lying on palm fringed beaches are selling skin cancer in the same way that images of people smoking sell lung cancer.
The HEA says there were 40,000 new cases of skin cancer in the UK last year of which 32,000 could have been prevented if people had covered up in the sun.
Christopher New, campaign director at the HEA, said images used by fashion editors had changed over the last decade, with more pale-skinned models and general disdain for the deep mahogany tan, but there was further to go.
"There has been a huge increase in articles on sun protection but only a small change in the images used. We are trying to get the image makers to use the huge influence they wield. The cool shady, covered image could be just as fashionable as the bikini on the beach."
A change had already been achieved in the marketing of sunscreens which were now sold not as tanning products but as providing protection, he said.
The health department survey, published as a statistical bulletin, showed that among 16- to 24-year-olds, three quarters of women and more than half of men had sunbathed in the last year. The incidence of skin cancer has doubled since 1979 and is higher in women.
However, deaths from skin cancer are higher among men. The likeliest reason is thought to be that men delay seeking medical help for longer than women when they notice changes in their skin.
More women than men said they now took precautions in the sun by covering up or using sunscreens. That suggests that skin cancer rates in men could start to overtake those in women.
Sir Kenneth said there was no such thing as a "safe" tan. Even when high- factor sun screen was used, the sun's rays damaged the DNA in the skin causing ageing and the early changes associated with cancer.
For malignant melanoma, the most serious skin cancer, the highest risk is among people who suffer sunburn before the age of 15, when most skin damage occurs.
Mr New said schools should take the risk of sunburn seriously by ensuring hats and sunscreens were used when necessary and providing shade in playgrounds.
"The most important thing is that teachers and parents help children to avoid sunburn," he said.