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 Rep. 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 the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma. 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 amenities like cable TV and fitness centers.
And though not included in this research, there have also been questions about supervision to ensure students who were using the tanning beds were older than age 18, according to Sherry Pagoto, 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 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 grassroots campaign to reverse this trend by enticing 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 there are free tanning facilities offered to their children in college, and if a university is allowing students to pay for tanning with those cards.