Half-Baked Tanning Laws
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By Lisa Seachrist Chiu

Half-Baked Tanning Laws

Regulations fail to keep minors away from tanning salons

By Lisa Seachrist Chiu


Legislative efforts to curb indoor tanning by minors aren’t quelling teens’ desire to sport a sun-kissed look no matter the cost. A new study shows that despite such laws, teens are just as likely to bake in tanning beds and under sunlamps as they ever were.

That’s discouraging news because exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from indoor tanning can lead to skin cancer, eye damage, aging skin and immune system suppression. Researchers point to lax enforcement as a key reason that such laws have had little effect.

“We were kind of disappointed,” says epidemiologist Vilma Cokkinides, the strategic program director for risk factor surveillance at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta and a co-author of the new study, which appeared in the Jan. 1 Cancer. Cokkinides notes that most indoor tanning laws fail to provide an outright ban for children under the age of 18 and permit access through parental permission. In addition, few if any jurisdictions are aggressively enforcing the laws, according to Cokkinides.

“This is very similar to youth restriction of smoking,” she says. “Enforcement is the Achilles’ heel of legislation.”

Cokkinides and her colleagues compared two national surveys of youth ages 11 to 18: one conducted in 1998 when the first tanning restrictions were put in effect, and the other in 2004. The team found that in 1998, 10 percent of those surveyed said they had used a tanning bed or sunlamp in the previous year, while 11 percent reported the same in 2004.

What’s more, the researchers discovered that 58 percent of the participants in the 2004 survey said they had suffered burns from indoor tanning.

“A sunburn means the skin has been damaged, and they are quite frequent during indoor tanning sessions,” says Martin A. Weinstock, a co-author of the study and the chief of dermatology at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence, R.I. “Teens are in effect being sold exposure to carcinogen.”

Efforts to convince teens to forgo tanning butt up against social norms, and the fact that “teens don’t care about getting [skin cancer] when they’re 40—they want to look pretty for the prom next week,” says James M. Spencer, the medical director of Spencer Dermatology and Skin Surgery Center in St. Petersburg, Fla.

In addition to enforcement and strengthening of legislation, Spencer thinks it is important to make tanning less socially desirable. Elizabeth K. Hale, a professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine and a spokeswoman for the Skin Cancer Foundation, agrees. The foundation’s campaign “Go With Your Own Glow,” which is backed up by a number of fashion magazine editors, declares that tanning is “over.”

The Indoor Tanning Association has been emphasizing that exposure to certain wavelengths of ultraviolet radiation causes the body to produce vitamin D. However, Spencer notes, “there is no reason to risk melanoma”—a deadly form of skin cancer—“when you can change your diet or take a supplement.” Or even, he says, you can take a short walk.