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Dermatologists blast tanning industry campaign to play down skin cancer fears

Seth Wenig / AP

Joe Bongioni makes sure he is covered with indoor tanning lotion, before stepping into a tanning booth in New York on March 24, 2010.

A new campaign by the tanning industry to promote the safety of sunbed use has come under fierce attack from the American Academy of Dermatology, which is accusing the industry of making claims that are “ridiculous” and unsupported by scientific evidence.

In the latest exchange between the two sides, the dermatologists blasted the newly formed American Suntanning Association for disputing the medical consensus that tanning indoors increases the risk of skin cancers, including melanoma, the deadliest kind.

“The recent statements by the American Suntanning Association (ASA) are ridiculous and there is no data to support them,” the dermatology group said in a statement. “Indoor tanning is dangerous.”

In a statement responding to the charge, the tanning association said: "The public does not benefit from the continuation of a protracted, sound-bite oriented fight between professional sunbed salons and anti-UV (ultraviolet light) lobbying groups about the relative safety of UV exposure. We promote a fair and balanced message about UV exposure.’’

The creation last month of the tanning association, made up of 1,400 salon owners, steps up the $5 billion industry’s campaign to defend itself against mounting evidence of the harms caused by indoor tanning. Already, industry members have mounted an extraordinary effort to portray doctors and other health authorities as conspiring to unnecessarily scare the public about tanning, as FairWarning reported in August.

The tanning association describes its strategy in a document bearing its letterhead that was posted last month on TanToday, an online industry forum: “Promoting the indoor tanning industry will require retention of scientists throughout the world to help us debunk the scientific reports being used against us, and a major PR and lobbying campaign to bring the truth about indoor tanning to the government and to the public at large.” 

Alex Howe, a spokesman for the group, said the passage is not the group’s official position. He did not respond to follow-up questions about why the statement was prepared.

However, the tanning association has hired a major public relations firm, is planning a lobbying campaign, and, Howe said, will work with what he characterized as “the many scientists who already support a balanced message about UV exposure.”

In a podcast last week, Doug McNabb, a board member of the tanning association described the new group’s goal: “The sort of mission of the organization that we all agreed on was that our main objective has to be to get more people in tanning beds. … The direction we’re going to take is going to be around media relations and regulatory relations that direct people to indoor tanning salons.”

Deceptive statements?
The World Health Organization says ultraviolet light from sunbeds causes cancer. DeAnn Lazovich, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota Cancer Center, whose own research has linked sunbed use to melanoma, said the industry’s long-running efforts to cast doubt on the science are just “smoke and mirrors” and an attempt to continue selling a service linked to cancer.

“They say, ‘Tan responsibly,’ but I think it is irresponsible for them to promote their product when we know it is a cause of skin cancer,” said Lazovich, whose work previously has been attacked by the tanning industry.

Jerod Stapleton, an assistant professor of medicine at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey who has studied the tanning industry, said many of the contrary studies cited by indoor tanning proponents are not peer reviewed and appear to rely on cherry-picked data, have methodological flaws or have been funded by industry. “It’s an interesting way of going about it,” he said. “If you don’t like what the science says, just go do your own.”

The tanning association has hired the prominent public relations firm Global Strategy Group, which lists high-profile companies like Goldman Sachs, General Electric and the New York Yankees among its clients, to represent it.

Howe, the salon association’s spokesperson, would not respond to questions about the group’s legislative strategy. But the industry wants to persuade the Food and Drug Administration not to tighten restrictions on sunbeds, as the American Cancer Society and other groups are advocating.

Even before the new group formed, the industry was trying to prevent states and local governments from passing laws making it illegal for teens to tan indoors. At least 30 states already have imposed some limits on teen tanning and Vermont and California ban anyone under age 18 from using a sunbed.

The industry has argued that tanning is a good source of Vitamin D, which is created by the body in response to UV light. It blames dermatologists for scaring people about exposure to the sun and inducing an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency in the process.

As FairWarning has reported, tanning’s proponents – including a network of non-profit organizations with ties to tanning salons – tout the vitamin as a panacea for ills ranging from autism to breast cancer. However, the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, says there isn’t enough evidence to say the vitamin provides any benefits other than improving bone health and disputes the notion that there is an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency.

UV light for medical treatments
As the statement last week from the American Academy of Dermatology noted, in 2010 the Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement with another industry group, the Indoor Tanning Association, over allegations it made misleading statements about the health benefits of sunbeds. The FTC says that under the settlement, the ITA agreed to refrain from making deceptive statements

Separately, the Texas Attorney General has sued a salon chain for claiming sunbeds reduce the risk of cancer and provide other health benefits. That case is set to go to trial in September.

The dermatologists group, in its recent statement, specifically criticized the American Suntanning Association for claiming that research pointing to indoor tanning’s ill effects is misleading. The ASA maintains that much of this research wrongly lumps in sunbed use at professional salons – which it contends is less risky – with sunbed use at doctor’s offices and homes. When the use of sunbeds in salons is considered on its own, “the risk virtually disappears,” the salon group said. 

The dermatologists dismissed that claim, saying ultraviolet light is used in treatments for some skin conditions, including psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. The “crucial disparity,” the dermatologists’ group said, is that the procedure is done by a medical doctor with appropriate training and expertise. “This type of medical care is not provided at an indoor tanning salon, where operators have minimal knowledge about the potential side effects of UV light,” the statement said.

Related: Embattled tanning industry fights back, taking its cues from Big Tobacco

FairWarning is an investigative news organization based in Los Angeles that focuses on on safety and health issues.

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