In my last two posts, I have examined the various types of skin cancer, their prevalence and survivability rates, and some prevention methods. Today, I will focus on another major risk factor for skin cancer. The use of tanning beds or “indoor tanning” greatly increases a person’s risk of developing skin cancer. It is a completely voluntary exposure to UV radiation, and yet many people choose to expose themselves despite all of the risks.
Known Dangers of Tanning Beds
Here are just a few statistics about indoor tanning from the Skin Cancer Foundation:
- “Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) is a proven human carcinogen. Currently tanning beds are regulated by the FDA as Class I medical devices, the same designation given elastic bandages and tongue depressors.
- The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an affiliate of the World Health Organization, includes ultraviolet (UV) tanning devices in its Group 1, a list of the most dangerous cancer-causing substances. Group 1 also includes agents such as plutonium, cigarettes, and solar UV radiation.
- Frequent tanners using new high-pressure sunlamps may receive as much as 12 times the annual UVA dose compared to the dose they receive from sun exposure.
- Ten minutes in a sunbed matches the cancer-causing effects of 10 minutes in the Mediterranean summer sun.
- Nearly 30 million people tan indoors in the U.S. every year; 2.3 million of them are teens.
- On an average day, more than one million Americans use tanning salons.
- Seventy-one percent of tanning salon patrons are girls and women aged 16-29.
- Indoor ultraviolet (UV) tanners are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never tanned indoors.
- People who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma.
- The indoor tanning industry has an annual estimated revenue of $5 billion.”
Internal references omitted
Horrifically, it is mainly young people choosing to use these devices despite the greatly increased risk of melanoma and other skin cancers. Given the enormous financial incentive to service young people – the industry cannot be expected to regulate itself. If they can make $5 billion dollars a year in revenue with a largely young female population, why would they stop? (Aside from morality of course…)
How to Protect the Skin – Even if You Don’t Want To
From a social perspective, there need to be some changes to the value our society places on certain skin color and beauty. This is outside of the realm of this post – but what a shame that in this century, men and woman would still rather expose themselves to harmful radiation than live life with their natural coloring (or lack thereof).
From an education perspective, I think that public awareness and an increased focus on education must continue to be one prong to battle this problem. However, clearly warnings alone are not enough. This is exemplified by a recent news story about a now 23-year-old woman who visited tanning salons three to five times a week starting when she was 16 years old. This young woman, who despite knowing the risks of tanning continued to use tanning beds until 2009, had to endure surgeries, drug therapies and over a year of painful treatment at the age of twenty-one for the advanced melanoma that had spread to her lymph nodes. Luckily, she is now cancer-free, but living with a greatly increased risk of developing another cancer. This is a cautionary tale, but it is also an example of the invincibility thinking of many young people that makes the risks seem lower than they really are to using tanning beds.
Legal Options – Regulation
So what remains? The tanning salon industry has a financial disincentive towards preventing skin cancers, the young patrons of these establishments may not understand the risks and consequences, yet the individuals and society are going to pay the price of devastating illness, high cost medical treatments and people’s lives if the current use of tanning beds continues. That is where the legal side of this post enters. There are a number of states that have started to regulate the use of these tanning beds – at least for minors. Most states do not regulate these very heavily. The National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled regulations from many states on their website. There are a combination of approaches which generally include either banning the use of tanning beds by very young children and teens (typically under 14 or 16 – but few states have an outright ban) and/or requiring parental consent for the use by children below a certain age (typically 18, occasionally 16). Some of these consent statutes require the parent to be present (in person) to provide consent. Others allow written consent or require the parent to be present only one time in the year. Do you think that these statutes are sufficient? Should the requirements involve vivid pictural warnings like the new requirements for cigarrettes?
In Maryland, Howard County is a leader in regulating this industry. In Howard County, minors under 18 years of age are not permitted to use tanning devices without a doctor’s note stating a medical reason and allowed frequency. These rules are not subject to a parent’s consent. Many states legislators have proposed tougher legislation in the past few years to increase the regulations on this industry across the country, but few have been successful.
What do you think should happen with the tanning industry? Do you think that there should be an outright ban for any minors using these devises? What about adults? There are still lots of tanning customers who are young adults who are over 18. What can be done to protect them from the increased risks of skin cancer? Is public education sufficient? Could it be done better?