Monday, November 9, 2009

Beyond Pink Ribbons

Imagine this disturbing scene. The young 17 year-old girl hustles over to the local health club after school, gets out of her 1998 Toyota Camry with a bright pink athletic bag, strolls up to the check-in counter, and the front desk attendant cheerfully hands her a shiny silver Smith and Wesson revolver with one bullet resting in the chamber.  What is going on here?

Indoor tanning is like playing a game of Russian roulette and even with the compelling evidence about its dangers; the health clubs choose to ignore the facts in favor of large profits. To make matters worse, the clientele is usually our young adult population; the same group that we go to great lengths to make sure that they drive a safe vehicle, and to educate them on the dangers of using drugs and smoking cigarettes. Physician specialists and the World Health Organization have taken notice and have been working hard to educate the public about these dangers.

I managed one of our area’s largest health clubs more than 23 years ago and we considered tanning beds as one of our “value-added” services. Safety information about tanning beds was still in its infancy and we believed that the beds were safe. I even remember my wife and I using the tanning beds in preparation for a trip to Hawaii with the misguided belief that developing a base tan was the healthy thing to do. Little did we know at the time how dangerous these machines were and that the potential health impact from tanning might not show up until much later in life.

A link between smoking and lung cancer by German scientists in the late 1920’s lead to the first anti-smoking campaign, but it took many more years to gain any significant traction. We all know how difficult, dangerous, and costly it has been to try to fight the cigarette industry. The tanning industry has their $5 billion in estimated annual revenue to help fuel their campaigns. Unfortunately, there is not much of an economic incentive to protect the public from the dangers of tanning beds.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) reports that each day in the United States, over 1 million people tan in tanning salons and nearly 70% of these patrons are females between the ages of 16 to 29 years. This year, the World Health Organization announced that it has moved UV tanning beds to its highest cancer risk category – “carcinogenic to humans”.

The dangers of indoor tanning have also caught the attention of well-respected physicians like Theresa Devere, M.D., a dermatologist at Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Devere has written peer reviewed articles and book chapters and presented at dermatologic meetings. Dr. Devere specializes in all aspects of general dermatology, with special interests in pediatric dermatology, Hansen's disease and pigmented lesions. I asked Dr. Devere about the tanning industry’s claims regarding the safety of using tanning beds.
"My response to the tanning bed propaganda is that there is no such thing as a healthy tan. A tan is essentially damage to the skin. Every time the skin tans it induces damage at the level of the DNA, which requires repair. Most of the time the repair is done correctly and there is no problem. However, if the repair is done incorrectly, a mutation occurs in the DNA. This mutation is the first step in the development of skin cancer, which can show up years later. 
The WHO recently released a report that tanning beds increase the risk of melanoma. I have seen this myself in young patients with melanomas in areas that are unexpected (breast, buttock, and other areas that are exposed by tanning bed rays but not sun). I strongly advocate more regulation of the tanning bed industry, especially for minors. "

This means that the young girl is taking the risk that her skin will not repair itself properly and mutation may occur in her DNA – the first step in the development of skin cancer. Unfortunately for the young girl, should she later develop skin cancer, it has been nearly impossible to legally connect the club as the root cause of her cancer. That is until now. Fitness Management published an article titled “Tanning Beds: Lawsuit in Waiting?” The article’s lead statement is telling – “as evidence continues to accumulate regarding the potential danger of tanning beds, one wonders how long it will be before lawsuits begin to be filed against fitness centers offering access to the beds”. The full article can be found at:

The AAD noted that, “A review of seven studies found a 75% increase in the risk of melanoma in those who had been exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning before the age of 35”. The American Academy of Dermatology Association position is clear. “The ADA opposes indoor tanning and supports a ban on the production and sale of indoor tanning equipment for non-medical purposes.”

My wife and I are melanoma skin cancer survivors. Our intimate experience with this deadly disease helps us ask the right questions and more importantly, who to ask. If your daughter’s life depended upon the answer of the question, “who do you trust, the tanning bed industry or a physician like Dr. Devere”, how would you answer the question? What is your risk if you are wrong? By default, the health clubs and tanning parlors are answering the question for you. The stakes are high – 8650 people are expected to die of Melanoma skin cancer in 2009. We believe that this number is too high and we hope to do our part in the prevention of melanoma skin cancer.

We need your help to persuade health clubs to follow the ADA position and remove their tanning beds. I have posted the letter that I sent to two local health clubs recently and am still awaiting their response. I will keep my readers posted of developments as they occur. In the mean time, please encourage others to register to follow my blog and to send the letter to health clubs in your local area. Please keep me informed of the responses you receive from the health clubs. The ADA has developed a great video for young adults about the dangers of tanning beds. You can see this video at Check it out and then please help our young friends and family by acting as their much needed voice. Thank you!



  1. Wow Fritz! Makes me glad I'm an indoorsman (happens to be todays "word of the day") :-)

  2. Erik, don't forget your vitamin D!