Healthy Tanning Beds? Experts Say No

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Sept. 18, 2008 — Health experts are fighting back against an aggressivecampaign by the tanning industry to portray sunbathing and the use of indoortanning beds as not only safe, but good for you.

In a series of papers published today, leading researchers in the fields ofmelanoma research, dermatology, and cell biology call for greater regulation ofthe indoor tanning industry.

Arguing that there may be no such thing as a safe tan, Society of MelanomaResearch President David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, and colleagues accuse the industryof trying to confuse the public about the health benefits of tanning.

“This effort to portray tanning and tanning beds as good for healthignores the fact that exposure to ultraviolet radiation represents one of themost avoidable causes of cancer,” Fisher tells WebMD. “There is noquestion that this exposure causes thousands of skin cancer deaths ayear.”

Last spring, the Indoor Tanning Association launched its nationwide campaignwith a full-page ad in the New York Times questioning the link betweensun exposure and the deadly skin cancer melanoma — and claiming that tanningpromotes good health by boosting vitamin D levels.

Exposure to ultraviolet light causes the body to produce vitamin D, whichresearch suggests is protective against a host of diseases.

“Both the sun and tanning beds have been unnecessarily demonized byspecial interests using junk science and scare tactics,” InternationalTanning Association spokeswoman Sarah Longwell said in a March 26 newsrelease.

UV and Skin Cancer

While he acknowledges that the impact of UV exposure on melanoma is notfully understood, Fisher says the tanning industry’s assertion that there maybe no link at all is wrong.

“Whereas genetic and other factors undoubtedly contribute importantly toskin cancer risk, the role of UV is incontrovertible, and efforts to confusethe public, particularly for the purposes of economic gain by the indoortanning industry, should be vigorously combated for the public health,”Fisher and colleagues write in the October issue of Pigment Cell &Melanoma Research.

More than 1 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and 60,000 cases ofmelanoma will be diagnosed this year in the U.S., according to the AmericanCancer Society.

“The incidence of skin cancer continues to rise faster than any othercancer, with the lifetime risk for an American to develop melanoma estimated tohave increased approximately 2,000% in the past 75 years,” the researcherswrite.

While melanoma is by far the most deadly skin cancer, Fisher says thousandsof people die each year from non-melanoma related skin cancers.

“These cancers are absolutely caused by UV exposure,” he says.”There is no question about that.”

In a separate review entitled “Are Tanning Beds Safe?” University ofNew Mexico epidemiologist Marianne Berwick, PhD, concluded that the datasuggest, but do not prove, that tanning beds are no safer than sun exposure andmay even be associated with an increased risk for melanoma.

She writes that better studies are needed to investigate the issue, addingthat, “because of this uncertainty, the data do not support a claim thatsun beds are safe, and such claims should be considered misleading.”

Tanning Industry Responds

In a statement issued Wednesday in response to a request from WebMD,International Tanning Association Executive Director John Overstreet accusesthe authors of the newly published reviews of making “irresponsibleassertions without providing any concrete link between indoor tanning andmelanoma.”

“The fact is, UV light provides vitamin D which helps the body ward offmany types of disease; the rewards that come from moderate and responsibleexposure to UV light far outweigh the consequences of not getting enough ofit,” Overstreet says in the statement.

Fisher disputes this claim, and adds that people can get all the vitamin Dthey need by taking supplements of the vitamin.

“In this day and age, advocating exposure to a carcinogen to get avitamin doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “People who are truly vitaminD deficient should be monitored by a physician who can recommend the rightamount of supplementation.”

American Cancer Society Deputy Chief Medical Officer Len Lichtenfeld, MD,agrees.

“Why expose yourself to an increased risk for skin cancer when you havea safe alternative in cheap and readily available supplements?” hesays.

Lichtenfeld points out that the American Cancer Society, the NationalCouncil on Skin Cancer Prevention, and all major dermatological associationshave taken the position that indoor tanning is an unsafe practice.

“It is nefarious how this industry group tries to promote this practiceas safe when every reputable medical organization disagrees,” he says.

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