Skin Cancer Researchers Oppose Industry Campaign to Portray Tanning Beds as Healthy
WebMD Health News
Louise Chang, MD
Sept. 18, 2008 — Health experts are fighting back against an aggressive
campaign by the tanning industry to portray sunbathing and the use of indoor
tanning beds as not only safe, but good for you.
In a series of papers published today, leading researchers in the fields of
melanoma research, dermatology, and cell biology call for greater regulation of
the indoor tanning industry.
Arguing that there may be no such thing as a safe tan, Society of Melanoma
Research President David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, and colleagues accuse the industry
of trying to confuse the public about the health benefits of tanning.
“This effort to portray tanning and tanning beds as good for health
ignores the fact that exposure to ultraviolet radiation represents one of the
most avoidable causes of cancer,” Fisher tells WebMD. “There is no
question that this exposure causes thousands of skin cancer deaths a
Last spring, the Indoor Tanning Association launched its nationwide campaign
with a full-page ad in the New York Times questioning the link between
sun exposure and the deadly skin cancer melanoma — and claiming that tanning
promotes good health by boosting vitamin D levels.
Exposure to ultraviolet light causes the body to produce vitamin D, which
research suggests is protective against a host of diseases.
“Both the sun and tanning beds have been unnecessarily demonized by
special interests using junk science and scare tactics,” International
Tanning Association spokeswoman Sarah Longwell said in a March 26 news
UV and Skin Cancer
While he acknowledges that the impact of UV exposure on melanoma is not
fully understood, Fisher says the tanning industry’s assertion that there may
be no link at all is wrong.
“Whereas genetic and other factors undoubtedly contribute importantly to
skin cancer risk, the role of UV is incontrovertible, and efforts to confuse
the public, particularly for the purposes of economic gain by the indoor
tanning industry, should be vigorously combated for the public health,”
Fisher and colleagues write in the October issue of Pigment Cell &
More than 1 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and 60,000 cases of
melanoma will be diagnosed this year in the U.S., according to the American
“The incidence of skin cancer continues to rise faster than any other
cancer, with the lifetime risk for an American to develop melanoma estimated to
have increased approximately 2,000% in the past 75 years,” the researchers
While melanoma is by far the most deadly skin cancer, Fisher says thousands
of 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 of
New Mexico epidemiologist Marianne Berwick, PhD, concluded that the data
suggest, but do not prove, that tanning beds are no safer than sun exposure and
may even be associated with an increased risk for melanoma.
She writes that better studies are needed to investigate the issue, adding
that, “because of this uncertainty, the data do not support a claim that
sun 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 accuses
the authors of the newly published reviews of making “irresponsible
assertions without providing any concrete link between indoor tanning and
“The fact is, UV light provides vitamin D which helps the body ward off
many types of disease; the rewards that come from moderate and responsible
exposure to UV light far outweigh the consequences of not getting enough of
it,” Overstreet says in the statement.
Fisher disputes this claim, and adds that people can get all the vitamin D
they need by taking supplements of the vitamin.
“In this day and age, advocating exposure to a carcinogen to get a
vitamin doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “People who are truly vitamin
D deficient should be monitored by a physician who can recommend the right
amount of supplementation.”
American Cancer Society Deputy Chief Medical Officer Len Lichtenfeld, MD,
“Why expose yourself to an increased risk for skin cancer when you have
a safe alternative in cheap and readily available supplements?” he
Lichtenfeld points out that the American Cancer Society, the National
Council on Skin Cancer Prevention, and all major dermatological associations
have taken the position that indoor tanning is an unsafe practice.
“It is nefarious how this industry group tries to promote this practice
as safe when every reputable medical organization disagrees,” he says.
SOURCES: Nga, T. Pigment Cell and Melanoma Research, October 2008; online
edition. David E. Fisher, MD, PhD, president, Society of Melanoma Research; professor
of dermatology and pediatric oncology, Harvard Medical School. Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer, American Cancer
Society. News releases, Indoor Tanning Association. Marianne Berwick, PhD, epidemiologist, University of New Mexico Cancer
Research and Treatment Center. Dan Humiston, president, International Tanning Association. Sarah Longwell, spokeswoman, International Tanning Association. John Overstreet, executive director, International Tanning Association.
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