The Tanning Industry Should Be Red-faced

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When so-called tan-a-holic mother of four Patricia Krentcil made headlines for allegedly taking her five-year-old daughter into a tanning booth, the story elicited mostly disgust nationwide both for her mistreatment of a child as well as her uncanny resemblance to burnt toast. Krentcil even became the focus of an SNL skit where her look was described as Wile E. Coyote after something blows up in his face.

But if society can unite to gleefully parody the adverse consequences of indoor tanning, why, then, does this nearly $5 billion industry still attract an estimated 28 million Americans (and growing) each year? Surely more and more people are becoming aware of the harmful effects of UV-emitting tanning devices: In 2009 they were placed in the highest cancer risk category ("carcinogenic to humans) by the World Health Organization s International Agency for Research on Cancer. And given the growing popularity of awareness campaigns that emphasize the dangers of tanning (not the least of which are skin cancer, wrinkles, and vision damage) one might imagine that the fervor for tanning is waning. Yet a 2009 study from the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University found, that in most U.S. cities, there were more indoor tanning salons than Starbucks or McDonalds restaurants.

In addition to multiplying its locations, the tanning industry has attempted to further boost the popularity of the trade by promoting its various health benefits. For instance, according to an investigation by FairWarning, a nonprofit consumer group, some tanning salons are putting employees through a D-Angel Empowerment Training program, which relies on a video developed by the International Smart Tan Network, an industry group. In the video, employees are told that tanning is a good source of vitamin D, which can prevent breast cancer, heart disease, and autism. Suffice it to say, the training video is misrepresenting the facts. While it's absolutely important to maintain adequate levels of vitamin D, its role in preventing cancer and autism is tenuous at best. Yet even still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will tell you that the safest way to obtain vitamin D is through diet or supplements.

But the video doesn t stop there. It also accuses greedy dermatologists and sunscreen makers of conspiring to frighten the public by encouraging minimal exposure to UV light. Unfortunately, they haven't been frightening people enough. A CDC report released earlier this year found that, Caucasian women between the ages of 18 and 21 were the most likely to indoor-tan, with 32 percent acknowledging they would engage in the activity. And among women who had already frequented a salon, the study found that they averaged 28 sessions in the past year.

When it s been established that frequenting a tanning salon before the age of 35 can increase one s risk of melanoma the most deadly form of skin cancer by a whopping 75 percent, shouldn t public health officials be taking more action to combat the tanning industry s manipulative PR tactics? Just this summer, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force reversed a 2003 recommendation by issuing a new draft guideline advising doctors to counsel children, adolescents, and young adults with fair skin about the harmful effects of exposure to UV radiation.

However, though such measures are important, they are not enough especially when more than 3.5 million skin cancers in over two million people are diagnosed annually. In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics joined the World Health Organization in deeming UV-tanning devices highly carcinogenic, and the American Academy of Dermatology went one step further. They issued a policy statement pushing for a ban that would prohibit any minor from indoor tanning. Such laws already exist in California and Vermont, but sixteen states do not currently have any rules at all regulating indoor tanning.

Evidence already demonstrates that 90 percent of melanoma cases are associated with exposure to UV light. Perhaps this, combined with ceaseless national ridicule, finally pushed Patricia Krentcil to meet a journalist s challenge to avoid tanning for an entire month.

But should it really require a media frenzy to deter just one person from tanning? Absolutely not, which is why it s imperative that states and local communities implement legislation that, just like cigarette laws, bans minors from engaging in this dangerous activity. Physicians and health care professionals also need to be more rigorous when it comes to educating their patients about the harms of indoor tanning. With both initiatives combined, perhaps we can finally begin to make a dent in the terribly high rate of this largely preventable disease and, in a twist of fate, make the new, non-tan-a-holic Krentcil proud.