Study: Tanning Beds Substantially Raise Skin Cancer Risks

New research spells out the risk of skin cancer associated with tanning beds. The FDA is looking into regulating the industry more strictly.

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A new study finds that people who frequent tanning salons may increase their risk of getting one of the most aggressive and deadliest cancers - melanoma. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports on the study which appears in a journal published by the American Association for Cancer Research.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: Every year more than 68,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma. About 10 percent will die. Because melanoma is related to exposure to UV light, researchers from the University of Minnesota wanted to know exactly how much of the risk comes from using indoor tanning facilities.

They compared more than 1,100 melanoma patients between the ages of 25 and 59 to a similar number of healthy individuals.

Dr. DEANN LAZOVICH (Cancer Epidemiologist): We found that the risk of melanoma was about 74 percent higher for persons who used indoor tanning compared to persons who did not.

NEIGHMOND: Cancer epidemiologist DeAnn Lazovich headed the study. In questionnaires and telephone interviews, Lazovich asked people about their tanning habits - whether they ever used indoor tanning and if they did, at what age they started and how often they went. She found the risk increased along with greater years of use and the number of sessions or total hours of use.

Dr. LAZOVICH: Fifty or more hours in one's lifetime, more than a hundred sessions in one's lifetime, or 10 or more years of use in one's lifetime. And if individuals were in any of those high levels of use, we found that the risk of melanoma was increased anywhere from two and a half to three times compared to individuals who did not tan indoors.

NEIGHMOND: The actual risk of getting melanoma was still low, even for people using indoor tanning. But indoor tanning did increase the risk of getting the disease. Industry officials say newer technologies have made indoor tanning safer.

But Dr. Allan Halpern, chief of dermatology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, says tanning is unsafe no matter how people do it.

Dr. ALLAN HALPERN (Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center): The answer is simple. Tanning is dangerous whether it's from the sun or from tanning beds. And what tanning beds are really doing is they're concentrating the same kind of rays that we are getting from the sun. So you're getting a much bigger dose for the amount of time spent.

NEIGHMOND: Another dispute has been over the increasing use of indoor tanning by younger people, particularly teenage girls. Several studies have shown that the younger people start using indoor tanning, the greater their risk of skin cancer. Lazovich.

Dr. LAZOVICH: Some of the earlier research did find a stronger relationship between indoor tanning that started before the age of 36 and risk of melanoma. But they weren't able to sort out whether that was due to some inherent biologic susceptibility versus just the fact that the younger you start, the more chance you have to accumulate exposure.

NEIGHMOND: This study didn't find a strong link between melanoma and the age when people start indoor tanning, but it did find the number of lifetime sessions increased the risk. Nevertheless, the World Health Organization has classified tanning beds as carcinogenic and recommends banning them for kids under 18. The FDA is also considering such a ban in the United States. John Overstreet with the Indoor Tanning Association says that would be unreasonable.

Mr. JOHN OVERSTREET (Indoor Tanning Association): What's next? Are you going to put people at the beach and stop people from bringing their teenagers under the age of 18 out to the beach? The city pool's going to be banned for anybody under the age of 18? I mean, where does it all stop?

NEIGHMOND: And Overstreet says the new study has many flaws, including the fact that it was done in Minnesota, which has a high population of very fair-skinned Caucasians.

If the FDA doesn't go as far as banning indoor tanning for kids under 18, it's likely at least to require a parent's approval before a teenager can go to a tanning salon.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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