Should Tanning Salons Be Treated Like Cigarettes?

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Regulators are proposing strict restrictions on the marketing of tanning salons to younger customers, saying they are a public health concern on the level of cigarettes. Nir Elias/Reuters

Tanning salons are already under siege: They got taxed by the health law, are newly regulated by the federal government, and states and have become dermatologists' favorite bad guy.

But some policymakers say that's not enough. Pointing to rising skin cancer rates and increased marketing toward young people, these public health advocates want new national restrictions regarding who can get their indoor tan on.

"It's time we started treating [tanning beds] just like they are cigarettes. They are carcinogen-delivery systems," said U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) at a May 20 Capitol Hill briefing on the dangers of indoor tanning. "We do not allow our children to buy cigarettes, yet the tanning industry continues to target adolescent girls. And this is not unlike what we found with the tobacco industry."

Experts at the briefing said young women may have vague ideas about the associated risks, but tanning beds are widely available at such low costs that their use is still widespread and contributing to the escalating prevalence of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanoma rates among young white women have grown by 3 percent every year since 1992.

In response, DeLauro is pushing for a national ban on the use of tanning beds by minors younger than 18.

Melanoma is the most common form of cancer among people between 25 and 29, according to the National Cancer Institute. Just one indoor tanning session increases users' chances of developing melanoma by 20 percent, compared with that of someone who has never tanned indoors.

Each additional session during the same year boosts that risk by another 2 percent, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. And people who use tanning beds 10 or more times in their lifetime have a 34 percent increased chance of melanoma, compared with people who have never had that exposure.

The industry minimizes these findings, though, and maintains that the science behind the numbers isn't solely focused on indoor tanning-bed outcomes. "The numbers that they have used to rationalize the [public health] decisions are not studies that isolate indoor tanning salons," said Joe Levy, scientific adviser for the American Suntanning Association, the trade group representing tanning salons. They include categories like home-use and medical-use tanning, which both drive up the statistics, he added.

Still, in response to these and other warning signals, the Food and Drug Administration last year mandated that tanning beds have clear labels informing customers of the risks. Medical groups, including the American Academy of Dermatology, have for years targeted the use of tanning beds. And 43 states already have laws that either ban tanning bed use by young people or require parental signatures.

Yet public health advocates say the availability of tanning beds near college campuses and marketing toward young people continue to go unchecked.

A 2014 study of 125 top colleges found that 48 percent had tanning facilities either on campus or in off-campus housing, and 14.4 percent allowed campus cash cards to be used for indoor tanning. Off-campus-housing buildings often list tanning beds among the amenities, like cable TV and fitness centers.

Although it was not included in this research, there have been questions about the supervision that ensures students who use the tanning beds are older than 18, according to Sherry Pagoto, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who spoke at the briefing.

"They're [indoor tanning companies] finding young women in these settings and locating themselves near schools," Pagoto said. She noted that companies like Sun Tan City, with 250 salons mostly in Mid-Atlantic and Midwest states, give money to sponsor football games, expand stadiums and provide free tanning to cheerleaders. "They're finding ways to become part of university life, one way or another."

Lisa McGovern, executive director of the Prevent Cancer Foundation's Congressional Families program, said her group is working on a grass-roots campaign to reverse this trend by persuading colleges to not allow students to pay for tanning with college debit cards. The University of Pittsburgh and University of Illinois have already agreed.

"If we keep up that pressure, others will follow," DeLauro said, noting that parents should know if free tanning facilities are offered to their children in college, and if a university is allowing students to pay for tanning with those cards.

Lisa Gillespie reports on federal and state policies regarding Medicare and Medicaid for Kaiser Health News (KHN), a nonprofit national health policy news service. This article first appeared on the KHN site.

Should Tanning Salons Be Treated Like Cigarettes? | Opinion