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Tanning Beds: The New Tobacco?

Posted: 06/10/11 09:17 AM ET

There was a time when public health messages surrounding tobacco and the dangers of smoking went largely unheeded, despite decades of scientific and medical data clearly linking cigarettes to fatal diseases such as lung cancer. In that climate, tobacco executives could stand in front of Congress and claim that they didn't believe nicotine was addictive, magazines ran ads targeting youth (featuring Joe Camel) and movie stars (such as James Dean) made smoking seem cool.

Today, things are different -- very different. You no longer see or hear advertisements for cigarettes, unless you're buying them at a convenience store or gas station. Characters smoking cigarettes have all but disappeared from the airwaves -- and there's even a non-profit group, Smoke-Free Movies, pushing to remove smoking scenes from films. And with local, state and federal health officials running anti-tobacco PSAs galore, the American public has never been better educated about the dangers of smoking.

Now, we find ourselves in a similar public health fight against another cancer-causing habit: tanning, and indoor tanning in particular. California and more than 30 other states have laws to help protect young people from the negative effects of indoor tanning, the use of which increases the risk of melanoma -- the deadliest form of skin cancer -- by 75 percent. In fact, the World Health Organization classified indoor tanning devices in the same cancer-causing category as tobacco smoke.

Despite all this, each year, more than two million teens tan indoors. Their access to tanning salons is astounding. A recent survey of 116 U.S. cities found an average of 42 tanning salons per city, which means tanning salons are more prevalent than Starbucks or McDonald's. And just as James Dean and the Marlboro Man once convinced entire generations of young people that smoking was cool and healthy, the prevalence of tanning amongst celebrities -- such as those starring on a popular MTV reality show whose mantra is "gym, tan, laundry" -- is making our fight more difficult.

Compounding the problem is that more than 43 percent of indoor tanners have never been warned about the dangers of tanning beds from tanning salon employees, according to a recent survey of Caucasian teens and young women by the American Academy of Dermatology. In addition, national data on skin cancer shows an increase in the rate of melanoma amongst young, white women. In women 15 to 29-years-old, the torso is the most common location for developing melanoma, which might be due to high-risk tanning behaviors. In my practice, I have had patients -- young women with a history of using tanning beds -- who have died from melanoma. The indoor tanning industry needs to take responsibility for educating its patrons so that they can make informed decisions. However, as we do with alcohol and tobacco laws, we need to protect our nation's young people because research shows they are not heeding health warnings.

So with pop culture's influence on one side, who can help push back? The answer is hinted at in the Academy's survey. One of the findings shows a whopping 94 percent of indoor tanners say their parents are aware that they're using, or have used, a tanning bed. Not only are parents aware, but the survey shows 65 percent of indoor tanners have a family member who uses a tanning bed.

The health risks from tanning are well-documented and we need to talk to our kids about the risks and set a good example by not participating in this behavior ourselves -- the same approach we as parents take with tobacco. (A simple visit to aad.org will arm you with helpful information: there is an entire section on indoor tanning dangers.)

As much data as there is to make the case against indoor tanning, in the end, it's setting a good example in the home, and encouraging conversations between kids and their moms, dads or caregivers that have the greatest impact.

It's this approach that can help save our kids' lives.

Ronald L. Moy, M.D., FAAD, is a dermatologist and president of the American Academy of Dermatology, headquartered in Schaumburg, Illinois.