The claim - that the sun's damaging effects have been exaggerated and its benefits underplayed - was immediately condemned by health campaigners. The Health Education Authority and Cancer Research Campaign accused the researchers of undermining many years of work highlighting the dangers of the sun.
Sunbathing is widely known to increase the risk of malignant melanoma and other skin cancers and to speed the ageing process.
But a group of experts have decided to highlight what is less well known: that exposure to sunlight stimulates production of Vitamin D, which, some studies suggest, may protect against heart disease. Deaths from heart attacks are more frequent in the winter.
Sitting in the sun is enjoyable and relaxing, makes people feel better and can prevent seasonal affective disorder, depression associated with lack of sunlight. It is beneficial in skin conditions such as psoriasis and may reduce the incidence of multiple sclerosis.
Professor George Davey Smith and colleagues at the Department of Social Medicine at the University of Bristol say in the British Medical Journal that the public should be educated on the pros and cons of lying in the sun so that they can weigh up the risks.
"For many people the small absolute increase in risk of melanoma could easily be outweighed by the effect of reduced sunlight on mood," they say.
But a spokeswoman for the Cancer Research Campaign described the suggestion as "extremely unhelpful, to put it mildly".
She said: "We are not suggesting sitting in caves. People do walk about and enjoy the sun and we absolutely accept it is pleasurable. There is a difference between sitting in the sun covered in oil and walking about with a hat on."
Increasing use of sunscreens may have reduced Vitamin D levels in the population, although the authors say that data on long-term trends is lacking.
Even a small change, however, could have a large effect, because of the high number of deaths from heart disease - over 70,000 men and over 60,000 women in 1995. Deaths from melanoma in that year numbered 697 men and 698 women in England and Wales.
"Even if reducing exposure to sunlight reduces the incidence of melanoma, its effect on overall mortality will be slight... Even the most forceful campaign could be expected to prevent only a few of those deaths."
The authors say that even the role of sunlight as a cause of melanoma is not established beyond doubt. Although intermittent sun exposure increases the risk, outdoor workers exposed to the sun regularly have a lower risk.
Increasing awareness of the symptoms of melanoma and improving access to treatment may be as effective in saving lives as reducing exposure to the sun, the authors conclude.
The authors warn, however, that there is no case for people to increase their exposure to the sun, particularly in light of the thinning of the ozone layer. They say we should wait for the conclusions of formal research in the area before rushing for our sun-loungers.Reuse content